EIGHT

THE FOLLOWING DAY CRAWLED BY IN TENSE, STIFLED INCREMENTS that saw Lily spending most of her time alone. Mike slept the first part of the day, since he’d been on night duty again, then was busy with some computer work Ryder had given him. And Ryder just basically ignored her, holing himself up in the control room the entire day. Whenever she’d gone in to try and ask him a question, he’d been on the phone, acknowledging her with a brief nod and then acting as if she wasn’t even there. She finally went back to her room and laid down for a nap, exhausted from lack of sleep and the constant stressing about . . . well, about everything. Rado. Her life. And the stubborn ex-soldier turned deputy who was slowly driving her out of her mind. She fell into a deep, restless sleep, and when she finally opened her eyes the sun was no longer shining against the room’s curtained window.

She got up and changed into one of the new outfits Mike had bought for her, needing something to cheer her mood a bit. The skirt was short and denim, with a gauzy short-sleeved blouse that made her feel flirty and feminine. She hoped Ryder choked on his own tongue when he saw it because she wasn’t going to let him just bulldoze his way into her bed again. Not without something seriously changing. She didn’t think it would be possible for a person to want someone more than she wanted him, but she couldn’t stand to keep ramming headfirst into those walls he kept throwing up between them.

She’d known, going in, that he wasn’t thinking in terms of forever. But, damn it, he could at least trust her enough to talk to her and let her in a little. For crying out loud, she’d told him she loved him! It’s not like there was anything a person could say that was more trusting and emotionally vulnerable than that. She’d laid her heart on the line and let him know it was his for the taking, if he wanted it.

Unfortunately, he’d made it pretty clear that he didn’t.

“Hey, Mike. Is Scott in the control room?” she asked, when she found the DEA agent sitting alone on the sofa in the living room, watching a ball game on the television.

Mike looked her way, shoved a hand back through his hair, and then his gaze quickly skittered away. “No, he’s, uh . . . out.”

She didn’t know why, but something that felt a little like pain started to coil through her belly. She had a bad feeling. Such a bad freaking feeling, and she started breathing a little faster. Had he gone after Rado? Was he off doing something dangerous that could get him hurt or killed? “Out? Out where?”

“I don’t really know,” he murmured, before he changed the subject. “I thought I’d make us some dinner. You like pesto?”

“Mike, where’s Scott?” She knew he wouldn’t just leave her with Mike and not come back. No matter how frustrated he might be with her, or angry, he wouldn’t bail on her when Rado was still out there. She believed that with every fiber of her being. “What’s he doing?”

Scrubbing his hand over the sexy five-o’clock shadow on his jaw, Mike said, “I’m not sure, Lil. All I know is that he said he’d be at the Palm for a few hours.”

She pressed a hand to her stomach, her nerves jumping. “The Palm? What is that? A bar? A club?”

Mike looked uncomfortable as hell. “It’s just a hangout in town.”

Her voice was starting to get a little brittle. “He left us to go and hang out at a bar? Or a nightclub? Which is it, Mike?”

“Lily, let it go. Please.”

“Like hell.” She didn’t want to think about what this meant—but that didn’t mean she hadn’t already figured it out. Some things were easy to see without a lot of thinking, and this was unfortunately one of them. She just didn’t understand why she hadn’t realized before. Why she hadn’t anticipated it. But then, there’d been a part of her still foolishly hoping that if she ever worked up the nerve to tell Ryder how she felt, he’d fall in line with her dreams and love her back.

God, she really was a na?ve little fool. She should have known that he’d run. And from the sound of it, he was determined to—

No, she didn’t want to think about it. Not unless she had to. Unless she saw it with her own two eyes and knew, without any doubt, what choice he’d made.

Looking at Mike, she said, “I need you to drive me over there.”

His eyes went wide. “What? Why?

“I need to go there. To talk to him. Can you please take me?”

“Fuck, no!” Mike grunted, moving to his feet.

“Then I’m calling a taxi,” she muttered, starting to turn away, but Mike reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back around.

“You’re not calling a damn taxi! There’s a fucking terrorist gunning for you, Lily, and Ryder and Ben haven’t been able to find where he’s hiding. Ryder spent hours on the computer today searching for any cyber links to the guy, and Ben’s had every damn deputy in the department scouring the town. Until we know what the hell this bastard is doing, you’re not leaving this house.”

They wasted another ten minutes arguing, but in the end Mike drove her to the nightclub in his truck, the silence in the cab charged with tension. He seemed pissed at himself for giving in and doing what she wanted, though she hadn’t left him much choice. He’d even tried to call Ryder, but Ryder wasn’t answering his cell phone, which only made her more anxious. Was he okay? Or was he purposefully avoiding Mike because he wanted to avoid her?

A quarter of an hour later, Lily was standing in the already crowded club, her ears ringing from the blaring music, while her eyes burned with tears, and she had her answer. It’d taken her only a handful of seconds to spot Ryder, and now she knew that she’d been right about the bad feeling she’d had. But Ryder wasn’t out doing something dangerous. He was too busy feeling up the woman sitting on his lap to worry about catching a terrorist. Lily couldn’t see his face behind the woman’s waves of strawberry blond hair, but she knew it was him. She recognized his long, jean-clad legs and black boots, the strong forearms and hands that were wrapped around the woman’s waist, and the shaggy locks of hair that were visible as he nuzzled his way up the side of her throat. With a small choked sound, Lily pressed a hand against the searing pain in her chest. It was unlike anything she’d ever known, as if a white-hot poker had been stabbed right through the center of her heart.

“Who is she?” she croaked when Mike placed his hand on her shoulder, her voice thick with the tears that were already running down her face.

“I don’t know.” He sounded as surprised as she was to find Ryder sitting at one of the tables on the edge of the dance floor with some unknown woman in his lap. From the edge of her vision, she watched Mike pull a hand down his face, then slowly shake his head. “Fuck. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“No. This is good. I needed to see this.” The last time Ryder had walked out on her, she’d cried for nearly two weeks, then spent three years missing him and hating him and trying to convince herself that she didn’t love him, without ever letting another man touch her. Tonight, there was no way in hell she was going to be so pathetic.

Not wanting to give herself time to think about what she was doing, she quickly turned and put her hands on Mike’s chest, pushing them up and over his broad shoulders, then around the back of his neck as she tried to pull him down to her.

Mike tensed against her. “What the hell are you doing, Lily?”

“Please, don’t tell me no,” she said in a rush, going up on her tiptoes. He was even taller than Ryder, which made reaching his mouth anything but easy. “I need this. I can’t lose it in front of him. I need this to ground me.”

“Shit, he’s going to fucking kill me,” he growled. But he didn’t push her away. He was already pulling her closer.

“Help me,” she whispered, knowing he probably couldn’t hear the soft plea over the music. But he was staring at her mouth so intently, she was sure he could read the words on her lips. “Please.”

He groaned deep in his chest, leaning down and giving her exactly what she wanted. And he was good, too. Better than good. If her heart didn’t already belong to someone else, Lily knew Mike Hudson could have rocked her world. But she’d met him too damn late.

Needing to push the pain to a place where she couldn’t feel it, she kissed Mike harder, thrilled with his response when he grabbed her ass and jerked her up against him, lifting her off the floor. She felt bad for using him—and knew damn well that it was wrong. But she couldn’t make herself stop. She wanted Ryder to see this and know that he hadn’t broken her. That she could take his childish shit and throw it right back in his face.

Only . . . she was acting like a child, too.

Hating herself for being such an idiot, Lily pulled back, knowing she needed to apologize to Mike. But she didn’t get the chance. All of a sudden Ryder’s strong, masculine arm was wrapping around her waist, yanking her away from Mike and plastering her against the front of his body. Then he lowered his head, and his voice was a furious hiss in her ear. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Struggling against his hold, she yelled, “Why should you care?”

His arm tightened. “Damn it, Lily.”

“Let go of me!” she screamed, prompting him to drag her through the growing crowd of customers and out the back door of the club. She had no idea where his date had run off to, but Mike followed after them with a grim look on his handsome face.

“I wouldn’t play with him if I were you.” Ryder’s voice was like cold steel, completely devoid of emotion. But he was vibrating behind her, his arm wrapped so tightly around her middle she could barely draw a breath, his other arm now banding across her chest to hold her arms in place so she couldn’t hit him. “Mike’s idea of fun is way out of your comfort zone.”

“I don’t have a comfort zone anymore, thanks to you,” she snapped, her voice cracking at the end.

“He’ll hurt you.”

“Not as badly as you have!” she flung back at him.

He sucked in a sharp breath, and she renewed her struggles, finally managing to break away from him. It was galling to know she’d only succeeded because he’d let her. They were standing in the far corner of the club’s back parking lot, close to his Jeep, the night illuminated with the flickering orange glow of a tall light post. The pain in her chest was raw and burning, but she forced it down, determined to see this through and salvage what shreds of her pride she still could.

Looking at Mike, who had stopped a few yards away from them, she said, “I want to go home now.”

•   •   •

RYDER GROWLED WITH impatience, thinking it would be a cold day in hell before he let her leave with Mike. “You’re not going anywhere until we’ve talked.”

She turned her head and glared at him. “I have nothing to say to you. And I don’t want to hear anything that might come out of your lying mouth.”

“I haven’t lied to you. Not once,” he argued, forcing the frustrated words through his clenched teeth. “And you are going to listen to me.”

She curled her lip at him, trembling with fury. “I don’t have to do anything where you’re concerned. You didn’t even have the balls to talk to me before hooking up with another woman. Do you know how juvenile that is? You are such a jackass!”

“Damn it, Lily. It’s not what you think!”

“I don’t care what it is. I just want you to leave me alone!”

“That’s not gonna happen,” he muttered, wiping his hand over his mouth as he struggled to get a hold of his temper and figure out what the fuck he should do. A cold, slick sweat slipped down his spine as he realized just how screwed up things had gotten. From the moment he’d left Lily at the safe house, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that he should have talked to her before heading off, instead of sneaking out while she’d napped. But he’d been reeling, spinning, feeling like he’d been hit upside the head with a two-by-four. That morning, when he’d opened his eyes, the words she’d said to him the night before had come at him like a fucking wrecking ball, flattening his chest, making it impossible to breathe.

On top of that, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the danger she was in. He knew Rado was up to something—he just didn’t know what. Not a single one of the asshole’s thugs had checked out Ryder’s house. The bastard was lying low, like a snake in the grass just waiting to strike. He was frustrated by the lack of progress he and the others had made in their search for him, and so he’d reacted like a fucking idiot and gone ahead with what had obviously been a stupid plan. One that had backfired so badly he wanted to beat the living shit out of something. That “something” being the man who was standing off to the side watching them. The man who’d had his tongue down Lily’s throat and her sweet little ass in his hands.

“What the hell are you even doing here?” he demanded, taking a step toward her.

“What’s the big deal? You left me at the safe—”

“With protection,” he growled, cutting her off. “What are you doing here with Mike?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “Same thing you were from the looks of it.”

“I told him to watch you,” he bit out, suddenly gripping her shoulders. “Not fuck you!”

“Well, thanks to your little stunt, who I sleep with is no longer any of your business,” she shouted up at him. “If I want to go to bed with him, then I’ll damn well go to bed with him!”

“The fuck you will!” he bellowed, turning and slamming his fist into the side of his Jeep. He silently cursed himself as pain radiated up his arm. When he turned toward her again she was blinking at him in astonishment. He knew his face was a rigid mask of anger, his lips parted for the hard breaths rushing from his chest. He wasn’t just mad, he was furious. But she wasn’t afraid of him. She looked more than ready to keep on giving him hell, knowing damn well that he’d never do anything to physically hurt her.

Lifting her chin, she said, “You can’t tell me what to do, Scott. You lost that right.”

“It’s not gonna happen, Lily.” He felt a muscle pulsing in the hard line of his jaw. “He never gets to lay a fucking finger on you.”

Unable to believe his freaking audacity, Lily fought the urge to stomp her foot and scream. “Hello? Are you listening? You don’t get to make those decisions for me.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of Mike’s dark expression as Ryder came even closer. So close that she had to tilt her head back to hold his blistering glare. “Let me make this clear for you, Lily. You let him touch you, he dies.”

“You can’t kill every man who touches me!”

“I’ll be the only man touching you!”

“Why?” she shot back, jabbing her finger into his rock-solid chest. “You don’t even want me!”

“Not want you?” he grunted. He gave his head a hard shake, looking as if he was having trouble believing what she’d said. “Christ, woman. I want you so fucking bad it’s driving me out of my goddamn mind. I want you so much I can’t fucking think straight half the time!” he roared, and then his mouth was on hers, his hands on her body, and Lily suddenly found herself on her back on the hood of the black Porsche that was parked beside his Jeep. The skirt she was wearing made it easy for him as he shoved her legs apart and pushed between them, kissing her even harder as she tried to resist. But it was impossible. She loved his mouth and his taste too much. Damn it, even hurt and pissed off at him, she still loved him, contrary, confusing son of a bitch that he was.

“We can’t do this,” she hissed, breaking away from the kiss to gasp for air. “We’re not alone out here. Mike is with us.”

He locked his sharp gaze with hers, breathing in rough, uneven bursts. “Did you know he’s into threesomes? And I’m not talking girl-on-girl action. I’m talking two men pounding into a woman at the same time.”

“Yeah? Sounds interesting,” she drawled, knowing it would only make him angrier.

He leaned down and put his lips against her ear. “Keep pushing me and I’ll fuck you right here, Lily. I’ll bare that beautiful little pussy between your legs and let him watch it swallow every inch of my cock until he gets the picture,” he threatened in a guttural rasp. “No other man touches you!”

She was so outraged she could barely speak. “So you can screw around but I can’t?”

“I wasn’t screwing around!”

“You’re such a liar!” she seethed, putting her hands between them so that she could shove at his chest. But she only succeeded in getting him to lift his head.

His eyes were narrowed to hot, glittering slits. “I didn’t fuck her. I didn’t even kiss her on the lips. Just her neck. Which is more than you can say.”

“I kissed him because I was pissed off! I’ve never been angrier with anyone than I am with you right now!”

“You didn’t look like you were hating it!” he shouted, straightening his arms. “You looked ready to screw him on the fucking dance floor!”

Seeing red, Lily slapped him with as much force as she could while lying beneath him, struggling like crazy as he caught her wrists and slammed them down on the hood of the Porsche. “You don’t get to judge me,” she yelled, glaring into his hard-set face when he looked back down at her. “If I want to kiss another man, I’ll kiss another man. I’ll do whatever I want with him!”

“The hell you will!”

“You can’t stop me!”

“You wanna bet, Lil? Because this is mine,” he growled, letting go of her wrists so that he could rear back and shove her skirt up to her waist. She gasped, too shocked to try to stop him when he ripped her panties off, no doubt giving Mike an embarrassing shot of her intimate bits before Ryder suddenly shoved his face against her. He went at her slick flesh like a man who’d been starved for years, using his lips and tongue and teeth. He thrust his tongue into her snug opening, fucking her with it, and she dug her nails into his broad shoulders, screaming from the onslaught of sensation. Hot, wet, melting her down into a molten glow. Her skin misted with sweat, mouth open, lungs gasping for air as she shivered and cried out. She knew she should shove him away and tell him to fuck off, but she couldn’t. Instead, she braced her feet on the Porsche’s hood and shoved herself against his mouth, trapped by her own desperate desire. By her need and want and all the unforgivably stupid shit that was going to land her in a world of heartbreak. He was meant to be her treat. She wasn’t supposed to get hung up and serious about him. Just mutual sexual gratification to finally scratch her itch and get him out of her system, before she either died or he walked away. Instead, she’d gone and admitted she was in love with the arrogant, know-everything, have-it-his-way jackass. And now look at her. God, she was so easy when it came to Scott Ryder it was embarrassing!

When she’d finally stopped sobbing and screaming from the violent force of her release, he pressed his forehead to her stomach, his hands keeping a firm grip on her waist. She blinked up at the stars in the nighttime sky, then glanced a little off to her left, and her eyes connected with Mike’s burning gaze before he quickly looked away, scanning the parking lot with a strained expression. Ohmygod. She was so embarrassed she thought she might pass out.

“Scott, let me go,” she whispered, surprised by the ravaged sound of her voice.

He lifted his head, his expression as hard as the gritty “No” that left his lips.

“I’m so pissed at you,” she snapped, bracing herself on her elbows. “I’m even more pissed at you for making me come!”

“Yeah, I know.” He ran his tongue over his lower lip, licking the glistening juices she’d left there. “Be pissed, Lil. But it isn’t going to change anything. I’m just going to shove my tongue up your cunt again and make you come until you’re ready to give me what I want.”

“You sadistic son of a bitch! What is that?”

He scooted down a little to lick her tight, throbbing clit, and she actually whimpered. Keeping his lips against her, he locked his heavy-lidded gaze with hers and said, “I’ll tell you what it is when I’ve gotten it. In the meantime, I want my tongue back inside you. I want to feel your juicy little pussy coming all over my face. So go ahead and keep yelling at me, Lily. It just makes me want to go down on you even more. I could eat your sweet little cunt out all night long and never get tired.”

Oh, God. If she didn’t put a stop to this now, she was lost. She loved him too much to win against him. But he was already going at her again, and she was powerless against the waves that slammed into her, her second climax hitting her so fast he didn’t even have to work for it. It swelled through her like a storm, the hot, vital throb of pleasure leaving her utterly destroyed.

And completely at his mercy.

•   •   •

FORCING HIMSELF TO stop licking her before she got too sensitive, Ryder rested his forehead against her stomach again as he tried to catch his breath, his body burning with need. His cock was so hard he was a little surprised the jeans had managed to contain him. When he could finally breathe without worrying he was going to blow his load, he turned his head and looked at Mike.

“Point taken,” Mike drawled with a tight smile, pushing his hands in his front pockets. “Now maybe you should tell her the truth about what you’re doing here, before she decides to smash your nuts in.”

“You figured it out?” he asked, pulling her skirt down for her before he straightened and took a step back.

He caught Mike’s nod when he looked his way again. “It took me a moment, but I’ve got it. I had to think about the hair and build. She was the right height. Had the right coloring.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Lily frown as she hopped off the Porsche’s hood, and knew she was wondering what the hell Mike was talking about. “What did you figure out?” she asked Mike. But Mike just looked at him, waiting for him to explain.

Locking his gaze on Lily’s strained face, Ryder finally forced out the truth, knowing that if he didn’t do it now he was going to lose her forever. “It wasn’t what you thought.”

“Don’t try to—”

He gripped her chin, cutting her off. “You’re going to listen to me, so shut up and focus.”

She glared, but didn’t say anything.

“I was not on a date with that woman. I was trying to pull off an op.”

She actually laughed as she jerked her chin from his grip. “Oh, God. You must think I’m so stupid if you expect me to believe that.”

With a fierce scowl, he said, “I admit that it wasn’t my smartest idea, and I was wrong not to tell you. But I’ve been out of my mind worrying about you. So cut me some fucking slack.”

“You honestly expect me to believe it was an op? You were licking her neck!”

“It was an act. I needed it to look real.” Exhaling a rough breath, he shoved his hair back from his brow. “It’s the truth, Lil. I was trying to draw Rado out with a decoy.”

“A decoy?”

His voice was raw. “I wanted him to think she was you and make a move on us. I want this shit to be over.”

Lily pulled her bottom lip through her teeth, wanting to believe him so badly that she was afraid to. “I thought I was meant to be the bait.”

“Yeah, that was the idea. To get him here. But when it came to putting you out in the open, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stomach the thought of putting you in danger like that. It nearly killed me just to think about it.”

“So that woman. Who is she? A cop?”

He jerked his chin down in a stiff nod. “A deputy who works in one of the neighboring counties. She’s trained to handle these types of situations. If Rado and his men had tried to jump us when we left here and headed down to the beach for a walk, she would have been able to take care of herself, giving me the opportunity to take him out.”

“And now?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “They obviously haven’t caught wind that I’m here. But if they had, I would have screwed the plan to hell when I went after you.”

“You could have just told me, Scott.”

He tightened his jaw, and she could see the truth in his eyes, even though he didn’t say a damn thing.

A bitter laugh fell quietly from her lips. “But you were still reeling from what I said last night, weren’t you? You saw this as a way to push me away. You said you only kissed her neck, but just how far would you have been willing to go for your deception?”

“I . . .” He glanced at Mike, then back to her. “Do we have to do this in front of him?”

Lily smirked. “Why not? This is hardly the time to get shy.”

Ryder cursed under his breath, then cut another lethal look toward Mike. But the jackass didn’t retreat. Instead, he looked at Lily and asked, “Do you need me to stay?”

Shaking her head, she said, “It’s okay, Mike. I’m sorry for dragging you into this. Go and enjoy your night.”

“You sure you’re going to be okay?”

She gave him a watery smile. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for your, um . . . help tonight.”

Ryder scowled at the crooked grin Mike gave her in return. “You and I will talk tomorrow,” he snarled at the smiling jackass.

Mike shot him a wry look. “Whatever you say, man. I’ll just wait until you’ve bundled her up safely in the Jeep, then follow you back to the safe house.” Lifting his brows, he added, “Someone’s got to be on watch tonight, right?”

He wanted to argue, but knew he needed the bastard’s help. He jerked his chin in silent agreement, then looked back at Lily. “Come on. I’m taking you home.”

She shook her head again. “That isn’t my home, Scott. None of this is mine. I don’t belong here.”

“Just get in the damn Jeep,” he grunted, knowing that whatever else was said between them that night, it needed to be done in private.

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