Chapter 17

AWASH IN A STEW OF FIGHT-GR-FLIGHT impulses, Lily froze. Seeing Zach spotlighted above her, his profile fierce and a gun the size of a cannon to her unaccustomed eyes in his hand, adrenaline shot through her system with such force she thought her heart would burst. As if she needed another reason to be scared out of her wits! She was already completely freaked by how out of her element she was—to have him suddenly pop up on the hill like an illuminated commando frieze in some avant-garde West Hollywood production darn near made her wet her knickers.

That was nothing, though, to the moment when the light shining on his face swirled sickeningly and he suddenly vanished. Her initial fear had been for herself. Now her tenor was for him. It was swiftly superceded by a surge of red-hot fury at the thought of some faceless coward hurting him, and her paralysis shattered. Screaming at the top of her lungs, she charged up to the campsite.

Keeping her eye on the knoll, she scrambled over the woodsy debris that littered the area. When a darker shadow in a night already way too dark suddenly detached itself and hesitated on the ridge just above her, she slid to a stop, her heartbeat hammering in her chest, her throat, her ears. Ohgawd, ohgawd . Whatever had possessed her to think she could be of any earthly use to Zach ? What seemed like such a good idea in the well-lit Beaumont mansion had revealed itself for the brainless folly it was the moment she’d crawled out the back of his Jeep. But the thought of him going into this all alone had been unendurable.

Now, more desperate to get to him than she was afraid of the kidnapper, she snatched up a rock to use as a weapon and forced herself to stalk toward the shadowy presence on the hill. It tossed its head like an enraged stallion, but then to her immense relief ran crashing through the woods in the opposite direction. The instant the kidnapper was gone, she stepped forward and hissed, “Zach!”

There was no answer and she called his name again, with a little more volume and a lot more insistence. Silence, broken only by creepy, shifty, nocturnal sounds, greeted her frantic demand, and shivering with pure reaction, she started up the hill, her feet sliding in their leather-soled sandals.

She paused when she reached the top, her breath sawing as she tried to reconcile where Zach’s position, as seen from the road, was likely to be. Before she could figure it out, she heard a low groan to her right and, thrilled to hear evidence he was alive—and more shamefully, that she wasn’t alone after all in the middle of the woods in the dead of the night—she headed that way.

She hadn’t taken three steps when she tripped over something underfoot and fell hard onto her hands and knees. Her breath catching just shy of a sob, she pushed herself upright, feverishly brushed her hands against her jeans to free them of the muck clinging to her skin, then picked her way with more care over the uneven ground. “Zach?”

“Lily. What the fuck are you doin’ here?”

He sounded drunk, but she was so relieved to hear his voice she nearly wept. And when she finally located him and found him sitting up, gingerly palpating his left temple, she promptly dropped to her knees, threw herself against his chest, and clamped her arms around his strong neck in a fierce stranglehold.

“Jeez’s Christ,” he protested in a harsh voice.

But his arms wrapped around her, and she shuddered in pure, unadulterated relief to feel their strength and the comforting body heat that accompanied his embrace. Clutching at him, she burrowed closer. “Oh, gawd, Zach, I was so scared you were dead.”

“Prob’ly should be, letting myself get distracted like a freakin’ raw recruit.” He suddenly sounded much more alert… and furious. Clasping her chin in one hand, he tipped her face up and thrust his own down until they were nose to nose. “What the hell kind of irresponsible stunt was that, stowing away in my car? What did you think you were doing, Lily?”

“I don’t know,” she wailed truthfully. “Your friends were supposed to be here to back you up, and then when they couldn’t be, it just didn’t seem right that you should handle this all by yourself.” Considering what a huge help she’d turned out to be, that sounded even dumber said aloud. She shrugged and admitted, “I didn’t think, period.”

He gave her an odd look. “You were watching my back?”

Her bark of laughter came dangerously close to hysterics. “Well, that was the plan, in theory. But it’s so dark out here, and this much nature up close and personal scares me to death, so all I did was nearly get you killed .”

The arm wrapped around her waist tightened. “You wusses—it takes more than a little pop upside the head to kill a marine.” Then, releasing her chin, he felt around the ground near his hip. A moment later he gave a grunt of approval, and Lily caught a quick glimpse of a handgun before he tucked it out of sight behind his back.

He shrugged when he caught the direction of her gaze. “At least the kidnapper’s not armed with my own pistol,” he said and frowned. “I suppose it’s too much to hope he didn’t waltz away with the ransom money.”

“I don’t know. He wasn’t much more than a shadowy form up here on the hill when I saw him.”

Muscles tensing, Zach jerked erect, and reluctantly Lily loosened her grasp on his neck and moved back. Reaching out to grip her shoulders, he stared at her intently. “You saw him up here?”

“Yes, but not very well, I’m afraid. Just enough to think he’s too tall to be a woman.”

Zach shrugged that aside, obviously not finding it significant at the moment. “Where were you when you saw him? This is important, Lily.”

“Down there in the campsite.”

He gave her a brief, hard kiss. “That’s my girl. Maybe all isn’t lost, after all.” He pushed to his feet.

When he started to stride away, Lily scrambled to her feet. “Wait! Don’t leave me here!”

He reached back and grasped her hand. “Keep up.” Despite the brisk command, however, a moment later he tightened his grip and said, “Watch that root.”

“What root?” Aside from glimpses of his face when it was an inch away, she might as well have been in a cave. “How can you see anything?”

“Good night vision, remember? When people aren’t flashing lights in my face, that is. Move a step to your left.”

Zach led Lily down to the campsite, not releasing her hand until they reached the firepit. Squatting down, he felt behind it, and the tension knotting his gut since he’d regained consciousness unraveled slightly when his hand closed over the satchel. Maybe he hadn’t fucked everything up, after all. His head felt like spikes were being driven behind his eyes, and his vision was the tiniest bit blurry, but those were things he could live with. Screwing up the drop and further endangering his sister weren’t—but it looked as if he might have been given a second chance. And this time they were going to play by his rules.

“I can’t believe I scared him off with a rock,” Lily said, and he rose to his feet to see her glancing around nervously.

“I doubt you did. My guess is he didn’t want you to see his face.” Grasping the satchel handle in one hand and her hand in the other, he hustled them out of the campsite and back to his Jeep. But when he opened the passenger door for her a moment later, she dug in her heels, tilted her chin up at him, and thrust out a hand.

“Give me the keys.”

“Don’t be ridic—”

“Don’t you be ridiculous,” she interrupted and poked him in the gut with her extended hand. “I’ve had a rough night, and I’m darned if I’m going to get into a car with a driver who may have a concussion.”

“I don’t have a concussion.” Hands on his hips, he bent his fiercest I-hold-your-life-in-my-hands-and-you’d-be-wise-to-remember-it master-sergeant look on her.

Without her usual skyscraper heels, the top of her head barely reached his chest. She obviously thought she was a giant, though, for not only did she not blink under a look that had sent men twice her size scrambling to do his bidding, she gave him another poke. “Give ’em here!”

He handed them over. As much as he hated to admit it, she was in much better shape to drive than he was, and pretending otherwise was dumb. He climbed into the passenger side, eased his throbbing head back against the headrest, and closed his eyes. He didn’t open them again until Lily killed the engine what seemed only minutes later.

Surprised to find that he’d dozed off, he saw they were back at the Beaumonts’, and the house was ablaze with light. Biting back a sigh, he reached for the door handle, only to pause when Lily touched his thigh.

“How do you feel?”

Like last week’s K-rations. “Fine.”

She made a skeptical sound. “You’re not a very good liar, Zach.”

“Yeah, well, would it make any difference if I said my head’s pounding like a kettle drum? I’ve still gotta do what I’ve gotta do.” He took a bracing breath, then opened the door, slid his thigh out from under her warm hand, and climbed out. But looking at her across the top of the Jeep, he admitted, “I could use your help on one thing, though, before we go in to face the lions.”

Miguel had his ear pressed against the heavy wooden panel of a second floor door when the commotion broke out downstairs. Foregoing trying to calculate if it was safe to enter the room, he lifted his head and strained to make sense of the sudden babble of voices. But although the volume rose and fell, exact words escaped him.

He didn’t know what was going on down there, but he knew he didn’t like it. Even a floor away, he felt exposed, and since he hadn’t heard any noise on the other side of the heavy door, he cautiously turned the knob. When no one promptly demanded to know who was there, he slipped inside.

The little bit of light that followed him into the suite showed it was another casually elegant, empty set of rooms. He couldn’t believe this place. There were first-class hotels in Bogota not half as beautiful, and he ran appreciative fingertips over the silky, striped chair in front of him. Then footsteps suddenly raced in his direction down the hallway, and he stilled, staring at the door that hadn’t quite closed behind him and not daring to breathe again until the footsteps pounded past and on down the staircase.

Hotels didn’t seem half as busy, either.

He should probably get out of here. After an hour of cautiously checking rooms, he still hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of Taylor’s yellow-haired puta . and now a humming sort of agitation hung over the place, making it feel like a hive getting ready to swarm. That much activity couldn’t be good for his chances of moving around undetected. And when a few moments later it occurred to him that he could barely even remember what Emilita looked like, he considered for an instant going back to Bisinlejo and just leaving this whole vendetta behind.

Then his chest puffed up. This wasn’t about her. It was about pride , and his good name, and being a man. Besides, Taylor used to preach something about discretion being the better part of valor back when he’d been showing the men of Bisinlejo how to hold their own against the cartel. So he’d stay and see this through. But right now the situation called for a quick retreat.

Miguel headed for the door. Pulling out before the master sergeant returned was not a cowardly act. it was merely subscribing to the live-to-fight-another-day credo.

Just the way the U.S. Marines had taught him.

Lily felt her temper start to rise as she stood next to Zach in the Beaumont parlor. Richard was yelling, Mrs. B. was in hysterics, and Cassidy sat on the couch grinning as if this were an amusing melodrama put on strictly for her entertainment. Christopher kept inspecting Zach with narrow-eyed suspicion, and Jessica, in between bouts of attempting to calm her aunt, stared in-credulously at everyone else in the room as if unable to believe their behavior.

Lily was having a tough time with that, herself. Pandemonium had been the rule ever since she and Zach had explained what transpired tonight in the woods. And after every thing Zach had gone through for them, she neither understood nor appreciated the Beaumonts’ attitude by half. His temple sported a vicious knot the size of a golf ball and his color was awful. He looked dead on his feet, but considering the new bombshell he’d just lobbed into the mix after Christopher asked where the money was, it seemed unlikely he’d get the rest he needed anytime soon. The only thing he had going for him, apparently, was the second of blessed quiet that had fallen in the wake of his reply.

Then Christopher moved forward to stand chest-to-chest with him. “What the hell does that mean , you’ve put it someplace safe?”

His aggression caused Lily to take a cautious step back, her lashes batting nervously. Zach didn’t so much as blink.

“Exactly what it sounds like. I’m through letting you folks comply with every damn demand the kidnapper makes without taking a single precaution to ensure Glynnis and David’s safety.”

Surprisingly, Christopher’s militance faded, and he stepped back. But before Lily could draw a relieved breath Richard pushed forward, demanding belligerently, “What kind of precautions could we take?”

“Insisting on speaking to your cousin before forking over his ransom, for starters,” Zach snapped. “Jesus. You just sent me out with a boatload of cash and not so much as one lousy assurance as to the kids’ safe return—not to mention a shred of proof they’re even still alive.”

Mrs. Beaumont’s hysterical howling immediately grew louder, but Zach kept his attention focused on the two men. “From now on,” he said flatly, “we do this my way.”

“The hell you say,” Richard countered, and Mrs. Beaumont screeched. “You’ll kill him! You’ll kill my darling David!”

Zach glanced at the older woman. “No, ma’am,” he disagreed. “Blind obedience to an extortionist will kill him.”

“Well, you can’t simply commandeer our money and tell us we have no say on how it’s used.” Richard said furiously. “That’s thievery .”

“So call a cop.” Zach pinned him in place with an ice-cold gaze. “I’d welcome it. In fact, you can all tell him where you were while I was out following your instructions.”

“Listen, you—”

But when Richard took a menacing step forward, Lily’s patience snapped She inserted herself between the two men. “All right, that is enough! What’s the matter with you people? Zach was knocked unconscious tonight trying to protect not only David and Glynnis, but your precious money as well, and all I’ve heard since we got back is complaints about how he handled the drop.”

“Hey, he’s supposed to be the big, hotshot expert.” Richard sneered.

“Yes, and isn’t it amazing how that only seems to apply when it comes to putting himself in danger? When he tried to give you the benefit of his expertise, however, no one wanted to pay attention. Well, shame on all of you! You can just sit around throwing hissy fits or wallowing in your self-righteous indignation until you turn blue for all I care. But Zach was injured doing what none of the rest of you were willing to do, and we’re finished listening to your grievances. I’m taking him up to his room.”

And with a final glare that dared anyone to stop her, she grasped Zach’s arm and marched them from the room.

Okay, that was embarrassing. Lying in bed where Lily had stripped him down and bundled him a moment ago before heading off to her own room, Zach relived the way she’d jumped in to defend him from the Beaumonts’ ire. He wasn’t some grade-school kid needing his mommy to fight his battles for him. Yet he had to admit it was impressive as all get-out seeing a little five-foot-nothing blonde take on an entire household and leave everyone standing around with their mouths agape.

Of course the Beaumonts weren’t the only ones whose mouths had been hanging open, and he was the one who’d allowed her to hustle him out of the room. So what did that say about him? That he was a grade-A pussy, probably—a guy who hid behind a woman’s skirts. Still. He’d never had anyone stand up for him like that, and it was kind of—

Shit. The truth was, his head throbbed like a bitch in heat, and he didn’t know what the hell he felt, aside from the fact that a persistent little kernel of warmth glowed in the region of his tough marine heart. And that wouldn’t do. No one knew better than he how dangerous it was to let anyone come to matter too much. In the end no one ever seemed to stay.

Not that he’d let it become a problem in this instance. The trick was not to depend on having anyone’s company for the duration, and he’d learned how to do that long ago. He didn’t plan to get used to Lily’s, either. As soon as he got his sister back and made sure Beaumont was good enough for her, he’d go back to figuring out how to spend his last two years in the service. And since little Miss Lily had big plans for her restaurant, no doubt she’d go her merry way as well without so much as a backward glance.

So when the subject of his thoughts suddenly slid back into his room wearing a little piece of satin and lace that could probably raise the dead, he had a noncommittal expression firmly in place. “I’m pretty hammered, sugar. I don’t think I’m gonna be of much use to you tonight.”

For just an instant her mouth dropped open. The minute she snapped it closed, however, it promptly morphed into a crooked smile full of genuine amusement. “Well, darn. And here I was, too, just dreaming about sex with a guy I could whip with one arm tied behind my back.” She heaved a sigh. “I guessI’ll just have to be satisfied with tending to your owie.”

Only then, to his embarrassment, did he notice the small tray she carried in her hands, and he said flatly, “I don’t require attending.”

She nodded in complete understanding. “Because you’re such a big, bad Marine.” Climbing up onto the bed, she reached across him and carefully set the tray down by his hip.

“Damn straight.” What the hell was she up to? He stared at her uncertainly as she carefully swung a leg to kneel astride him, then lowered her lush butt, settling on his thighs with a subtle little wiggle.

“Sometimes even marines need a little TLC,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they’re like those Navy wusses or anything.” She twisted to wring a washcloth over the bowl of warm water she’d taken it from, then turned back and cautiously dabbed at the knot on his temple.

For the next several minutes Zach watched her breasts sway and shift against her nightie as she administered to him, and stewed in his own confusion. He couldn’t remember anybody ever taking care of him like this. When he was a kid and got hurt, his injuries had mostly been attended to with rough efficiency by a tribesman, since his folks, more often than not, had been out ministering to the natives. And in the service he’d always been doctored by medics. God knew in neither instance had anyone ever sat on his lap to tend him. Nor had they felt like this, nor smelled like this, and they sure as hell had never kissed the injury better once they’d finished bandaging it.

Man. What was it about her? He had a feeling if he didn’t watch it she could make him come all undone. Between that body, that way she had of constantly surprising him, and her innate niceness , the woman was more dangerous than a vial of nitroglycerin.

But he was too damn tired to do anything more than feel grateful for the comfort he received a few minutes later when she put everything away, climbed into bed, and snuggled up against him. He pulled her a little closer, and sighed.

What the hell. He’d get himself straight in the morning. Right now he just wanted to let everything go. So he closed his eyes and concentrated on Lily’s breath wafting across his chest, on the warmth of her arm draped across his stomach.

Then everything faded to black.

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