THINKING THAT SHE’D JUST HEARD SOMEONE SAY HER NAME, Lily rolled over in the comfortable double bed and choked back a moan. Mmm, talk about waking up to a beautiful piece of eye candy. Ryder was sprawled back in the brown leather chair that sat in the far corner of the room, dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt. He looked tired, but beautiful. The dark smudges under his eyes only added to the I’m-a-serious-badass image he projected so well. Of course, in Ryder’s case it wasn’t an image. He really was a serious badass.

“Did you sleep at all?” she asked him.

His dark eyes bored into hers. “I caught a few hours.” His voice was low and morning-rough. If she had the choice, she knew she could be happy waking up to that voice every morning for the rest of her life. Too bad she had a better chance of winning the lottery.

“What were you doing all night?”

He scratched at the black stubble shadowing the hard line of his jaw. “I spent some time online.”

Sitting up, she braced her back against the headboard. She’d slept in a thin tank top, and kept the sheet tucked up under her arms, covering her nipples. They’d gone hard the instant she’d set eyes on Ryder, but it wasn’t like she wanted to hide from him. She wanted him. God, she wanted him. She just needed to wake up a bit more before she could throw off the nerves fluttering in her belly and put it all out there, nipples and all. “Were you looking into Rado?”

When he nodded, she asked, “What’s your plan?”

She could have sworn he was fighting back a grin. “What makes you think I have a plan?”

She rolled her eyes. “I know you, Scott. I spent too many years of my life studying you. I know what your game face looks like.”

Leaning forward in the chair, he braced his elbows on his parted knees, the position doing incredible things to his muscular arms and broad shoulders. “I think we let him know where you are, then sit and wait for him to fall into our lap.”

Her jaw dropped so far she thought she probably looked like a landed trout. “Wait a minute. You want him to come to Moss Beach?”

His gaze was steady and direct, and deadly as hell. “We can waste weeks trying to track the bastard down so that I can make sure his ass is dealt with once and for all, or a few days waiting for him to make his move.”

A few days. The more dangerous but faster option. And from the look on his face, it was obvious that he’d chosen it because he couldn’t wait to get rid of her. She shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t happy about being stuck with her. Oh, he might not have come right out and said it. But his facial expressions and body language had been easy to read. He didn’t want her there.

Knotting the sheet in her hands, she worked to keep her voice calm as she said, “I came here looking for protection. Can’t we just . . . I don’t know. Alert the right people and let them go after Rado, while I stay here with you?”

He shook his head. “We both know how hard the son of a bitch is to kill, Lily. And until he’s dead, you’ll never be safe.”

“And when he gets here? What then?”

“Then I kill him.”

He said it so simply, as if he were talking about taking out the trash or grabbing some fast food.

“And his men? What are you going to do about the assholes he has working for him?” she pressed, knowing damn well that any chance she had of turning the fantasy that’d been playing in the back of her mind into a reality was getting slim. And it was such a good one, too. A raw, delicious fantasy where she and Scott Ryder lost themselves in each other before Rado found her and killed her. She didn’t want to die, damn it—but if she had to go, she at least wanted as much time with Ryder as she could get before it happened. At the first sign of the terrorist, she planned to leave town, drawing the danger away from him. Just not until she’d gotten what she’d come for. But Ryder wanted Rado there now, leaving her no time at all.

Answering her question, he said, “If they try to hurt you, they die. But Rado’s interest in you is personal. I’m guessing he’s looking for some kind of payback against your father for sending the old unit after him. Once he’s dead, his men will move on to greener pastures.”

He dropped his gaze to her hands, which were still knotted in the top sheet, holding it tight to her chest. Her grip was so strong she figured her knuckles were probably turning white, but she couldn’t relax her hold. When he lifted those dark eyes back to hers, she said, “I shouldn’t have come here. I knew you were tough, that you could handle yourself, but I didn’t think you’d want a showdown. You could get hurt.” She darted her eyes to his scar, then quickly looked away. “You’ve already been hurt enough by this man. I don’t want you in danger.”

“We’re not going to hide, Lily. I’m going to finish the job I started three years ago. I want that bastard in the ground.” He paused for a second, studying her expression with those piercing eyes, before saying, “And don’t even think about running.”

She blinked. “What?”

“You heard me. If you think you can read me, then remember that I can read you even better.” He paused again, his intense, heavy-lidded gaze making her feel as if he really could see right inside her, picking his way through her thoughts. With a slow shake of his head, he quietly said, “I don’t know what plan you had in coming here, but it obviously wasn’t this. You knew you’d be safe here, that I’d protect you if the shit hit the fan, but for some reason, you never planned on me going face-to-face with Rado.”

“No. I—”

“Don’t waste our time with lies.” His expression was definitely veering toward a scowl. “Just know that if you try to run, you’ll have both of us chasing you down—me and Radovich. And you won’t like what happens if I find you first.”

Her breath caught in her chest at the blatant warning in those low, husky words, but she knew she wasn’t in any real danger from him. He wouldn’t physically harm her—not like Rado would. No, Ryder was promising a different kind of punishment. One that made her heart pound and her pulse race, while she went warm and wet in places that were eagerly anticipating his possession. It was almost funny, the way he thought he was making some kind of threat, when she was more than willing to take whatever he wanted to dish out.

“If we do this,” he added, “then we do it my way.”

“Yeah, I know.” The time for being shy was definitely over. Taking a deep breath, Lily deliberately let go of the sheet, watching his gaze drop as the white cotton slipped down to her waist. Her nipples pulled even tighter beneath the weight of his stare. “You’re into control and all that, right?”

That muscle started to pulse in his jaw again. “I’m not talking about sex.”

“I know you weren’t.”

His nostrils flared as he roughly exhaled. “Focus, Lily.”

“Or what?”

Something hot and hard started to burn in that dark gaze as he slowly brought it back to her face. “You’ll listen to me or I’ll cuff your sweet little ass to that bed.”

Refusing to back down, she drawled, “You can cuff it anyway, Deputy. I’ve always wanted to try a little bondage.”

Ryder was on her before he’d even realized he was moving. One second he was sitting in the chair across the room, and in the next he had her trapped beneath him in the center of the mattress, his hands manacling her delicate wrists. His eyes narrowed as he stared down at her triumphant expression. “You’re pushing me, Little Lily.”

She gazed up at him with wide eyes, her face flushed with excitement. “I’m not little, Scott. And if it’ll get you pushing into me, then good. I’ll just keep pushing. What do I have to lose?”

He shoved a knee between her legs, forcing them apart, and pressed against the crotch of her panties, letting her feel just how thick and hard he was. “You feel that?” he growled, his lungs heaving. “You still want me inside you?”

Instead of scaring her off, the look in her eyes got hotter . . . softer, as if she saw right inside him and liked what she saw. What the hell? It was like she understood his screwed up emotions even better than he did. “God, yes,” she whispered. “I want it more than anything.”

He made his tone as snide as possible. “You really think you can take it, baby girl?”

Her laugh was low and sweet, giving him chills. “Maybe the question is whether or not you can keep up with me. I mean, I’m younger, which means I’ve got more stamina. And I’m sure as hell not afraid of your dick, Scott—no matter how big it is.”

He shook his head and glared. “You shouldn’t talk like that.”

“Why not?”

“For one, you’re too damn young. And your fucking life is in danger. You need to stay focused and stop trying to get me in your pants.”

She laughed a little harder, hugging his hips with her slender thighs. “Seriously, Scott. Do you even hear yourself? I’m twenty-five years old. And if my life’s in danger, then shouldn’t I be enjoying every moment of it while I still have the time?”

“Don’t say that,” he snapped, gripping her shoulders and shaking her. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You don’t know that,” Lily said softly, staring up at him. “I have every faith you can keep yourself alive—so long as you don’t do something reckless—or I wouldn’t have come here. But we both know the odds aren’t in my favor. Not if he’s decided I need to die.”

And that right there was why she’d run to him. Because she refused to leave this world before she’d done everything she could to get her fill of this beautiful, somehow damaged, thoroughly exasperating man.

“You really think I’ll let him touch you?” His face was right above hers now, his breath warm against her lips.

If I stay, I won’t blame you if you fail. We both know what he’s like. You’re my best shot, but a girl’s gotta be realistic, right?”

His dark eyes glittered. “Damn it, Lily. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Tell me you understand that.”

“I’d rather tell you what I want to do to you,” she shot back, knowing she was pushing him. But she couldn’t stop. It was like the need inside of her had taken control of her mouth. “Or I could tell you about all the things I’m hoping you’ll do to me.”

“Is that really what this is all about? You came to me because you want to get fucked one last time before he finds you? Is that it? Was I the closest guy you could get to that you know?”

“No! I came here because I want you. Just you.” Her voice shook with emotion. “I always have.”

“You don’t know what the hell you want,” he argued, forcing the words through his clenched teeth. “You’re acting like a spoiled little brat.”

“Why? Because I’m not afraid to admit what I want? Does it freak you out that badly? Are you afraid I’m going to ruin you with my dirty mind?”

“I swear to God, Lily.” Frustration thickened his words. “I’ve had enough of your smart-ass mouth.”

“Then put something in it and shut me up,” she flung back at him. “Come on, Scott. Quit wasting time!”

He didn’t say anything more. He used actions instead of words. But there was no mistaking his meaning. One second Lily was trapped under him, and in the next he had her flipped to her front, braced on her knees, with her elbows on the bed and her ass in the air as he knelt beside her, holding her in place. When he ripped her panties down, pulling them to mid-thigh, she panted, “What are you doing?”

“Spanking your ass,” he growled, quickly bringing one of his big hands down in a loud smack against her right cheek. Lily shrieked, startled and outraged by the pain, and more than a little confused by the pleasure that followed immediately on its heels. Did she like this? Did she want more? He didn’t wait to ask. Within seconds he’d rained four more slaps across her bottom, alternating sides and making the sensitive skin burn, her body shivering as she tried to make sense of the strange sensations rushing through her.

Then he stopped, his breathing jagged and rough as he held still beside her, the heat of his body keeping her warm in the cool, air-conditioned air. He shuddered, making a low sound in his throat. The hand he’d used to spank her curved around her stinging flesh, gripping her in a hard, possessive hold, while the other pressed between her shoulders, keeping her in the provocative position. She panted harder, wondering what came next, when he dropped his forehead to her lower back.

“Scott? Wh-what are you doing?”

“I . . . Fuck! Shut up and let me think.”

“Are you okay?” she whispered, which was odd. She was the one who’d just had her ass spanked. If anything, he should be asking her that question. But she could feel the brutal emotion gripping him, making his hard, powerful body shake.

“No,” he finally admitted. “I’m not okay. I’m really fucking far from okay.”

The hoarse, guttural sound of his voice made her melt, and she was keenly aware of the slick warmth of her juices slipping down her inner thighs. She was wet and empty and aching inside. What was he waiting for?

“Are you going to touch me?”

When he didn’t respond, she arched her back a little deeper, swaying her bottom a bit, too desperate to care that she was practically begging for him. “Please, Scott. Do it.”

His fingers tightened on her ass, and for a moment there was nothing but the heavy, breath-filled silence that surrounded them, pressing down on them, thick with secrets and things she didn’t understand. Her lungs locked as his hand slowly started to slide lower. But his touch and weight were suddenly gone before he reached the drenched folds of her sex. There was a sharp, visceral growl, followed by the sound of one of his massive fists slamming into the wall behind the bed. She rolled over, crouching in the middle of the sheets, unable to believe he was walking out on her.

“Where are you going?” she demanded, watching him stalk across the room without once looking in her direction.

He stopped at the door, his big hands digging into the frame on either side, the power of his body so beautiful she wanted to throw herself at him. But it was what lay inside that had always fascinated her, trapping her heart before she was even old enough to understand what this kind of attachment meant. That it would ruin her for other men. Make her ache. Make her miserable.

“Get dressed,” he muttered. “We’re meeting Ben at his place in half an hour.”

Then he was gone.

•   •   •

THE DRIVE TO the sheriff’s house took little more than ten minutes. Ryder had been waiting for her when she’d finally come out of the guest room after getting ready, and by some unspoken agreement, neither of them had mentioned what had happened.

“Uh, Scott?” she murmured, staring through the windshield of his Jeep at the cars parked in the shared driveway of two beautiful beach houses that looked to be under a massive remodeling job that would make them a single house. “Is there some kind of party going on here?”

“Ben and his wife are throwing a birthday party for one of her sisters down on the beach later. He said people would probably show up early to help with the cooking and to get things ready.”

Lily pulled her lower lip through her teeth. “Does he mind us being here?”

“Not at all,” he said, not looking at her as he pulled his key from the ignition. “He invited us to the party, but I told him I thought it would be best if you kept a low profile for the moment.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, thinking the last thing she could probably handle right now was a party with a bunch of strangers.

They climbed out of the Jeep and made their way through the parked cars, then around the side of the house on the right, until they’d reached the crowded back patio. Standing on the fringes of the bustling group, Ryder pointed to a muscular, dark-haired guy who was sinfully good-looking. “The tall guy over there is Ben.”

“That’s who you’re worried is going to play matchmaker?” she asked, barely able to hold in her laughter as she studied the man who was stringing a strand of small white lights across the opposite end of the patio. He was gorgeous, but looked tough as hell. “Honestly, Scott.”

When she sent him a look that said she thought he was crazy, he smirked. “You want to feel my palm on your ass again?”

She was surprised he’d mentioned it, and more than a little surprised at how turned on she was by the idea. Heat sizzled through her as she murmured, “I might.”

“Christ.” He blew out a soft breath, and there was a crooked tilt to his mouth as he shook his head. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“You certainly did,” she said with a soft laugh, thinking he might actually be loosening up a little. Looking back at the sheriff, she asked, “Is it hard for you to take orders from a guy who isn’t military?” On the drive over, he’d explained Ben Hudson’s background as a Miami homicide detective, before the lawman had relocated to Moss Beach and taken on the role of county sheriff.

“Not at all,” he murmured, nodding to the people who either smiled at them or gave them a little wave. They were definitely getting some curious looks, but everyone seemed friendly and welcoming. “Ben knows what he’s doing,” he added. “That’s all that matters to me.”

She smiled, thinking Ryder had always been that way. For such a badass alpha soldier who had been as lethal with a computer as he’d been with a knife, he’d never been one to play the macho asshole card. He’d taken his orders from her father without ever batting an eye, and he’d been loyal to the members of his team. He hadn’t swaggered with attitude like so many of the elite soldiers.

“Hey, Ryder. You gonna introduce me to the lovely lady?”

Ryder mentally cursed as Michael Hudson, Ben’s younger brother, walked toward him and Lily. Ben had obviously asked everyone to give them a bit of space, but Mike either hadn’t gotten the message, or had simply decided to ignore it. Before he could tell the hotshot DEA agent to back off, Lily stuck her hand out and smiled. “Hi. I’m Lily Heller.”

There was a wicked gleam in Mike’s pale green eyes as he shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Lily. I’m Mike Hudson. Ben’s brother.”

Though she’d had a change of clothes in the backpack she’d brought with her, she obviously hadn’t had any makeup to put on. Her face was freshly scrubbed, her skin glowing and healthy, making her look even younger than she was. And incredibly innocent—even though Ryder knew she wasn’t. Not after what had happened that morning. A virgin would have been screaming her head off at having her underwear ripped down and her sweet little ass smacked, instead of moaning and wiggling for more. His right hand flexed at his side, his palm burning with remembered sensation. Her rounded backside had been so smooth and soft. It’d taken every ounce of willpower he possessed not to push his hand lower, between her legs, and palm her hot little cunt. Even more to refrain from rolling her over and shoving her legs out flat at her sides so that he could get a good long look at her tender folds, before lowering his head and going at her like a man who’d been starving for too damn long.

“So how do you know this jackass?” Mike asked, interrupting the dangerous track of his thoughts. Last thing he needed was to get hard in front of all these fucking people. Ben would never let him live it down.

“Mike,” he grunted, that single word holding a wealth of warning. Before Ryder could say anything more, Ben finally came over, slapping his brother on the back.

“Get lost, Mike. They’re here on business.”

Mike’s pale gaze skimmed over the faded bruise on Lily’s jaw. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” he said in a hard voice, before walking away.

Ben shot a warm look toward his wife, Reese, who was standing at one of the tables with her mother, both women busy putting flowers into little vases that’d been tied with ribbons. Then the sheriff turned and headed through a set of French doors, into the house, and Ryder and Lily followed after him. Ryder kept his hand against her lower back as they made their way through the house to Ben’s home office. At the beginning of the summer, it had been a man’s office, nice but rugged with a single desk. Now it sported a slightly smaller, feminine desk on the other side of the room, where Reese worked. This room was hardly the only change in Ben’s life since he’d fallen head-over-ass for the sexy little schoolteacher—but for some reason it made Ryder uncomfortable. He scowled as he looked around, noting the two mugs sitting on the larger desk. One had lipstick on the rim, as if Reese had been cuddled up in her husband’s lap as they’d shared their morning coffee. And then there were the fucking photos on the walls and their desks. Wedding photos. Honeymoon photos. The smiling, laughing couple with their arms wrapped around each other. The looks on their faces happier than he’d ever thought people could be. That it could happen to a tough son of a bitch like Ben threw him. He didn’t like being in this space, where everything screamed couple and commitment and all the things that scared the living shit out of him. And he sure as hell didn’t like being in here with Lily.

“You okay?” Ben asked him. “You look—”

“I’m fine,” he grunted. “Just . . . worried.” He almost flinched when Lily turned her head and gave him a little smile, her eyes flashing with emotions he couldn’t deal with. And didn’t want. What the hell did she know anyway? She was too young. Too trusting. Too fucking everything. He’d have to be an idiot to believe a single word that had come out of her mouth that morning.

Moving away from her, he threw himself into the chair over by the wall, leaving her alone in front of the desk.

Ben frowned, looking between the two of them, before settling his worried gaze on Lily. She was still standing, and he held out his hand. “I’m afraid we didn’t get properly introduced. I’m Ben.”

“Lily,” she said, shaking his hand. “I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with us when you’re so busy.”

He gave her an easy smile. “Not a problem. I’m never too busy for my friends.”

Ryder stiffened, a little surprised by Ben’s words. He hadn’t really ever thought of him as being a friend. They worked together. Period. He didn’t have friends. Or girlfriends. Hell, he was such a reclusive jerk, he probably wouldn’t see his sister if she didn’t make it a point to come down and visit.

Before he could sort out his thoughts, Ben asked Lily to take a seat, propped his hip on the edge of his desk, and caught Ryder’s gaze. “Tell me what you need and I’ll make it happen. But first, I want to know what’s going on.”

Though he’d given Ben a brief overview of the situation over the phone, he hadn’t gone into any specifics. He did that now, explaining about Yuri Radovich, the op he and his fellow team members had carried out against Radovich three years ago that they’d mistakenly thought had resulted in the terrorist’s death, and how Heller and his girlfriend had been killed. Then Ben asked Lily to explain how she’d managed to make it from the Caribbean to Florida, and Ryder listened with interest. His damn head had been so screwed up since last night he hadn’t yet taken the time to ask her that question himself. Her story about paying some guy on a deep-sea fishing boat to smuggle her into the port so that there wouldn’t be any records for Rado to trace gave him chills, considering how easy it would have been for some bastard to hurt her. When she was done, Ben looked at Ryder and asked, “Could Radovich’s hit on Heller and his family be a personal strike against you?”

Lily sat up a little straighter in her chair, her confusion showing in the crease between her delicate brows. “What would an attack against my father have to do with Scott? As far as I know, they never spoke again after he left my father’s unit.”

Ryder shook his head a little, warning Ben off that particular track. He knew exactly what the guy was thinking—that Radovich thought there was a romantic connection between him and Lily and had tried to kill her because of it. No way in hell did he want his boss blurting out a bombshell like that. He’d never be able to convince Lily he wasn’t interested if she suspected he might be lying to her. Idiot woman had decided she wanted a piece of him for some unknown reason, and until he’d dealt with Rado and sent her home, he needed to be careful not to give anything away. Not that he was doing that great a job of it. He’d already had her panties down around her knees once today, and it wasn’t even lunchtime.

Picking up on Ryder’s signal, Ben shrugged Lily’s question off, saying it was nothing, then asked what he could do to help. Ryder rubbed his scar for a moment, knowing Ben probably wasn’t going to like his plan. But he didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. He needed Radovich dealt with as soon as possible, because his control was only going to last so long. Sitting forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them, he said, “I’ve talked to Lily, and we both believe that her best chance of survival is to draw Radovich to Moss Beach so that I can deal with him personally. I know Rado will be keeping tabs on the east coast for word about Lily. He’s got guys who know their way around our statewide communication systems even better than we do. I was thinking that if you could put out a statewide alert for a man matching his description in connection with a local investigation, then it should be enough to snag his attention without setting off any red flags with the military, since they still don’t know he’s the one who made the hit. But the second Radovich realizes I’m a deputy in your department, he’s going to know that Lily came to me for help.”

Ben looked unconvinced. “Will he really think we’re stupid enough to put out an alert like that and not expect him to find out about it?”

“It doesn’t matter what he thinks. Even if he figures out it’s a setup, he’s still going to come after her. That’s a given. Regardless of his reasons for wanting to kill her, he isn’t the type of man who can allow a woman to get one over on him and let it go unanswered. He’s too fucking arrogant for it.”

“And you’re both okay with this?” Ben asked, looking from one to the other.

Before she could say anything, Ryder grunted, “Yeah. We talked about it this morning.”

Ben shot her an odd look, as if surprised to hear that she’d agreed to the plan. And Lily, damn her, hardly gave the impression that she was on board with the idea. She looked too pale, the tightness around her mouth a dead giveaway that she was on edge.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Ben said, “It’s a hell of a risk, luring an international terrorist to our town, Ryder.”

“I know. But I’ll deal with the bastard when he shows. I don’t expect the department to take this on.”

“Christ,” Ben muttered with a scowl. “No one’s going to stand by and let you handle this on your own. But drawing him to your home isn’t going to play out well if something goes wrong. I don’t want you having to hit the road in order to fall off his radar and end up losing my best deputy.”

“Nothing’s going to go wrong. I made the mistake of leaving that asshole to die once. I won’t do it again. This time I’m making sure he’s in pieces before I walk away.”

If Ben thought that was a bloodthirsty plan, he didn’t show it. He simply asked, “And then what?”

Ryder was careful not to look in her direction. “Then I’ll go back to work at the station and Lily can get back to her life in Virginia.”

Ben sighed, cutting an almost sympathetic glance at Lily. Ryder didn’t know what kind of expression she was wearing now, since he refused to look at her, but judging by the look on Ben’s face it wasn’t good. His boss looked like there was a lot he wanted to say, but knew better than to even try, and Ryder was grateful for his silence. He knew the next time he and Ben were alone he’d probably be getting an earful about God only knew what. But at least the guy was keeping his opinions to himself for the moment. The sheriff’s only question was, “You going to stay in the county’s safe house?”

“We have a safe house?” Ryder asked with surprise.

Ben grimaced. “Yeah, though the previous sheriff only used it as a place to house his latest mistress. I’ve slotted it for sale, since the county has no use for it. And I sure as hell have no need of the place. But it could come in handy in this situation. The security is tight, and there are cameras set up for outside surveillance.”

“I’ll think about it,” he replied, moving back to his feet. “We should be okay staying at my place for the next day or so, but it might be a good idea by the time we’re expecting Radovich.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “Just let me know if you change your mind and want to head over earlier. I’ll get someone from the station to drop the keys off at your place, and the house will be yours.”


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