Chapter 23

LEVELHEADED WAS THE LAST THING LILY FELT the next evening as she followed the Compass Room host across Rosario Resort’s most elegant dining room. She couldn’t seem to stop smiling, and when she glanced over her shoulder and caught Zach eyeing the swing of her hips, she grinned even wider. She flashed him an I saw that wag of her eyebrows when his gaze lifted to meet hers, then quickly composed her features as the host stopped at a window table overlooking the bay and pulled out a chair. She thanked him as he seated her, then dismissed him from her mind in almost the same breath and leaned toward her date as he took his own seat across the linen-draped table.

Her date . She rolled the word around in her mind, jazzed right down to her pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled shoes that Zach had gone to the trouble of arranging this evening for them. She pushed aside the charger and plate in front of her and leaned toward him. Ordinarily, she’d be all agog to check out every aspect of the restaurant from its artfully folded linen napkins to the way the traffic flowed throughout the room. But tonight her professional goals weren’t foremost on her mind, and she gazed at Zach’s smooth-shaven countenance. “This,” she sighed happily, “is so nice.”

“Yeah, Jessica was sure you’d like it.”

“Oh, well, yes. The restaurant, too.” She planted her chin in her palm and her elbow on the table, and gazed dreamily past the small vase of fresh yellow rosebuds at the man sitting so straight and tall across the table. “But I meant this.” She indicated the two of them. “You and me—having an honest-to-gosh date. We’ve sort of gone about this relationship backwards.”

A look of what in any other guy she might have termed alarm flashed across his face. But his expression just as quickly cleared, and since he was hardly the type to panic regardless of the cause—let alone show it—she decided it must have been a trick of light from the tiny lamp next to the roses. A deduction that seemed validated by the easy shrug he gave her.

“You’ve been cooking up a storm and handling all the KP since we got here.” He flashed her a smile that was all gleaming white teeth. “And with the missing-link Ernestine back in the kitchen now that Darling David’s been restored to the throne, I thought it was time to give you a break. You’ve waited on everyone else. Let someone wait on you for a change.”

So it wasn’t poetry. She didn’t care. It was the kind of autocratic-protective thing he usually reserved for Glynnis, his I-take-care-of-what’s-mine attitude, and she gave him a crooked smile. “Works for me.”

He sprawled back in his chair and gazed at her, his eyes roaming to the hint of cleavage that showed above her scooped neckline before raising to meet her own. He gave her a lazy, carnal smile, and when she felt his big feet encroaching on her territory under the table, she deftly unbuckled the ankle strap on her right shoe, slipped the pump off, and ran her toe up beneath the cuff of his slacks. Stroking him from ankle to shin, she enjoyed seeing his eyes darken, and continued to tease him even after the waitress arrived with the menus. The minute the young woman had taken their drink order and left, Zach leaned forward.

“You’re playing with fire there, honey chile.”

“Um-hmm.” She stropped her toe up and down, up and down. “Don’tcha just love fires? They make a person feel so nice and”—she dropped her voice to a breathy murmur—”hot.”

“Keep it up and I’ll show you hot.” His voice was a deep rasp that licked its way down her spine. “Right here on the table, in front of all these fine folk.”

She made a moue but slid her foot out from under his pant leg and worked it back into her shoe. “Party pooper.”

“Hey, I’m just trying to spare the other diners’ sensibilities.”

“Yeah, right.” A laugh purled out of her throat. “I could tell that by your proposed demonstration on the tabletop.”

“Honey, I’ve got a pole tenting the front of my trousers large enough to support a Big Top. The fire alarm goes off because of all this heat you’re generating, and I’m going to give that blue-haired lady over there a heart attack.”

Lily grinned. “Maybe. But it’d be from sheer envy.”

The waitress returned with Zach’s beer and her Chardonnay and offered to take their orders. Flushed by the sheer amount of raw sexuality she’d sparked, Lily hurriedly picked up her menu and made her selection. When the young woman departed, she made a conscious effort to dial back the tension by turning the conversation to less inflammatory matters.

Zach gave her a knowing smile, but fell in with the subject change. Over salads he challenged her to describe her ideal restaurant. Absorbed in trying to relate all her ideas, it wasn’t until a seaplane’s arrival in the harbor made hearing momentarily difficult that she realized she’d dominated the conversation throughout most of the meal. As the plane cut back its engines and taxied to the dock, she waved her fork and gave Zach a crooked smile.

“My, how I do go on. So now it’s my turn to eat and your turn to talk. You said you’re on leave.” She sliced off a bite of salmon and studied him across the table. “What happens when you go back? Are you immediately off on an exotic new adventure?”

For just a second he stilled. Then his shoulders shifted in the faintest of shrugs. “Funny you should ask. I’ve been trying to decide that very thing.”

“Whether or not you’ll be sent on another mission?”

“No, what happens to my career when I go back.” He pushed his plate away and leaned toward her. “You see, I’ve got two years left in the service, and I always thought I’d spend them the same way I spent the first eighteen. But lately a couple of my COs have been agitating for me to give up field work.”

She studied him for a moment. “I’m guessing that doesn’t sit too well with you. Do you love it that much?”

“Yes!” Then he frowned. “Well, no—not really. I mean, it’s a lot more exhausting and not as much fun as it used to be. But it’s what I know—and what I’m good at it. And it’s not frigging teaching !’

He sounded so affronted by the idea, she had to grab her chair to keep from climbing straight over the table to give him a great big hug. “Is that what they’re suggesting you do instead?” At his terse nod, she loosened her grip on the seat in order to reach across the space separating them, touching gentle fingertips to the big hand fisted around his napkin. “This is not something you care to do, I gather.”

“Are you kidding, Lily? Can you honestly see me as anyone’s instructor?”

“Well… yes. Actually, I can.” When he stared at her as if she were certifiable, she stroked the white knuckles beneath her fingers. “Zach, isn’t that already part of what you do now? I mean, I know it’s much more seat-of-the-pants and dangerous than any classroom situation could ever be. But you said your men are mostly in their late teens and early twenties—I would think dealing with that age group day in and day out must be an ongoing teaching process. I can’t honestly envision you lecturing from behind a podium. But if you’re talking about teaching practical application of the things they’ve learned in a class in more reality-based settings, then I can definitely see you doing that.”

He looked startled. But he also looked thoughtful, and to her satisfaction his knuckles stopped displaying so much bone as his fingers relaxed beneath her hand.

He sat back in his chair and simply stared at her for a moment. Then he turned his hand beneath hers and enfolded her fingers in his warm grasp. Looking down, he seemed fascinated by the sight of his thumb smoothing over the back of her hand. “I think you’re the one who’d make a good teacher,” he said to the skin beneath his rough-tipped fingers. “I don’t think it’s escaped anyone’s attention the way you transformed Jessica.”

It was Lily’s turn to be startled. “Oh, no. Really. I mean, we talked, of course, but Jess did all the work herself.”

“Thanks to some major guidance and motivation from you.” His pale, charcoal-rimmed eyes rose to pin her in place. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as patient or nice as you are.”

” Oh . Oh, Zach.” Her insides melted. She’d known since first realizing the depth of her feelings for him that sooner or later she’d slip and give them away. But she had always suspected it would be the mind-frying sex they shared that would undermine her defenses. Never once had she dreamed that hearing him call her nice while they were both fully clothed might be the agent to bring all her walls tumbling down. Yet her entire body yearned toward him as she felt every safeguard she’d ever placed on her heart crumble to dust. She squeezed the fingers wrapped around hers. “Oh, gawd, Zach. I am so in love with you.”

His entire body stilled. “Yeah?” The tilt of his mouth looked pleasantly amused, but his eyes were suddenly guarded. “Well, if a little compliment like that floats your boat, I can hardly wait to see what kind of reaction dessert gets.” His hand slid out from under hers, and he leaned back in his chair. Way back.

For about two seconds she was tempted to just let it go. She knew that’s what he wanted—to pretend the elephant hadn’t entered the room with them. But when she looked from her now-empty hand curled limply in the middle of the linen tablecloth to the man leaning as far away from her as he could get and still remain at the same table, she felt something cool trickle through the warm fuzzies she’d been immersed in all evening. And she knew she couldn’t let it go—not after having just bared her soul. “Okay,” she said slowly. “Not exactly the reaction I’d hoped for.”

For a moment he looked downright panicked, but then he straightened, his face wiped free of all emotion. “What do you want me to say, Lily—that I love you, too; let’s start looking for a rose-covered cottage?”

She kept her expression every bit as neutral as his while the cool trickle turned to an icy torrent. “Yes. I can’t think of anything I’d rather hear.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I don’t do love.”

Oh boy , did she disagree, but she merely said, “You do a first-class imitation of it, then.”

“It’s a pipedream, Lily—a concept invented by greeting card companies. There’s lust, and like, and excitement, and that’s no doubt what you feel too.” Crossing his arms over his chest, he gave her an authoritative look. “Trust me. You’re not in love with me.”

Unfortunately, she was. But she didn’t particularly like him right this minute. “And what makes you such an authority on how I feel?”

“Common sense.” His arms dropped away from his chest and he leaned forward earnestly. “Look, you and I are really… compatible… in some ways. But in the long run we’re interested in different things.”

“That’s funny, because despite the obvious differences between us, I could have sworn we had more in common than not. So what is it that interests me that scares you so much?”

“Opening the restaurant you’ve been saving a lifetime to buy, for starters. And it doesn’t scare me. I’m just pointing out that you’re ready to settle down in one place—and I’m in an occupation that has me constantly on the move.”

“Yes, for two more years. That’s nothing compared to how long I’ve already waited.” But nausea roiled in her stomach at the look on his face. “I can see, though, that the last thing you want to hear is that I’m willing to postpone opening my place until you’re out of the service.” A chill raised the flesh on her arms and she rubbed her hands up and down them. “Gawd, this is almost funny. Not that long ago, I would have thought following a soldier around the country was the last thing I’d be willing to do too. But then I went and fell in love with you. I think we could have a phenomenal future together. You obviously don’t feel the same.” He didn’t deny it, and she died just a little. “You said we’re really compatible in some ways. You want to define what those are?”

He merely looked at her and the sickness increased. ” Sexually” ? That’s all I mean to you? Someone to fuck?”

He jerked. “Jesus, Lily. Don’t talk like that.”

A crack of bitter laughter escaped her. “Oh. That’s beautiful. You virtually tell me it’s all you want from me, but I shouldn’t say the word?”

“That’s not what I meant. I’ve just never heard you swear.” He shook his head impatiently. “But that’s not important. You’re not just someone to fuck—we’re friends, you and I.”

“But only as long as we’re in the sack, apparently. Or—what? Were you thinking that when you’ve had your fill of me sexually, we oughtta get together every now and then for a beer?” Her voice wobbled embarrassingly on the last word and, feeling tears rising perilously near the surface, she shoved back from the table and snatched up her purse. “Excuse me. I’ve got to use the restroom.”

He was hot on her heels when she pushed open the door of the ladies’ room a moment later, but she turned with her hand on the knob to stare up at him. “Do you mind?” she asked. “If you’re truly my friend , you’ll give me a moment of privacy.”

Dark brows gathering like thunderclouds over his nose, he stared down at her as if he had X-ray vision that would get to the truth of her emotions. But she refused him access to her thoughts, and with a sound of frustration he turned on his heel and stalked back to the hotel dining room.

She rushed to the restroom sink. Her dinner stayed down, but barely, and every time she thought of the way he’d said they were friends when he obviously believed their only real compatibility was in bed, the gorge rose anew. Standing with her hands braced on the counter-top, and her head hanging low, she drew deep, steadying breaths and fought it down.

Finally, she raised her head and looked at her reflection in the mirror. When they’d arrived here this evening, she’d felt treasured and pretty. Now she thought she looked like a woman men only wanted for one thing, and she turned away from the sight. How on earth had she gone from Princess of the Night to Queen Slut in the space of so few heartbeats?

When she felt her composure was about as good as it was going to get, she walked out of the restroom and looked toward the dining room. Then she turned in the opposite direction and headed for the resort’s front door.

The air was soft when she stepped outside and, had she not been wearing shoes so impractical as to make the notion laughable, she might have been tempted simply to start walking back to the Beaumonts’. Alternately, she wished for a moment, as she stared out over the parking lot, that her skills ran to hot-wiring cars. It would serve Zach right if she took the Jeep and left him high and dry.

But, no. Vindictiveness was all very warming to contemplate, but more often than not it only ended up biting the butt of the person who harbored it. Besides, running away was immature and ultimately wouldn’t solve a darn thing. So she’d take a loop or two around the hotel to get her emotions in check. Then she might as well resign herself to heading back inside to face Zach like an adult.

Sometimes, though, being a grown-up bit.

She picked her way down the steps and once on the walkway, headed for the point side of the venerable old resort grounds. Tears kept rising to blur her vision, and between those, her skyscraper heels, and the occasional pine cone out to trip her, she had to be extra vigilant about where she placed her feet. The sun had gone below the trees, and as she rounded a curve, the twilit path became a stretch of deep shadow. She paused for a second to let her eyes adjust.

When she heard footsteps behind her, her first thought was that it must be Zach. Before she could decide whether she hoped for or feared the possibility, however, someone grabbed her by the arm, and she didn’t need to see the person’s face to know it wasn’t him. Instinctively, she tried to pull away, but she stilled when something hard was jammed into the small of her back.

“I have a gun,” a masculine voice said in her ear. “Make one peep, and I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Well, that went just fucking swell. Zach sat rigidly upright in his chair, draining his beer, then reached for his coffee and knocked that back too while he waited for Lily to return. Hard to believe you’re actually supposed to be pretty good at negotiating your way out of tough situations . The dinner he’d just consumed sat like gravel in his stomach.

His only excuse was that Lily had caught him off guard. But who the hell could have predicted she’d fancy herself in love with him? Or that she’d look so betrayed when he’d insisted she wasn’t?

Who could have predicted that hearing him say they were friends would make her look as if she were about to throw up? Jesus. He found himself feeling pretty hollow-stomached himself.

His back grew even stiffen Dammit, he would not feel guilty. He could have handled the situation much better, plainly, but he’d rectify the damage as soon as she came back. He’d make it clear it wasn’t her—that he was the one destined to fail at the relationship game. No matter whose fault it was, though, the fact remained that ultimately it would never work, and it was better to clear up these misunderstandings from the start. It might not make either of them happy, but it sure as hell beat the complete mess matters would be in if he allowed them— her —to get in too deep.

What the Sam Hill was taking her so long, anyway? He wanted to go get her so he could begin making her understand it wasn’t really love she was feeling. But he remained obstinately in his chair, refusing to chase after her. He’d done that already—damned if he planned to do so again.

When she still hadn’t returned fifteen minutes later, however, he conceded that her stubbornness far outshone his own tonight. He paid the bill and went in search of her.

It took another fifteen minutes to figure out she’d left. He sent a waitress into the ladies’ room and searched the resort’s public rooms himself. The bell captain remembered seeing Lily go outside, and Zach went over the grounds with methodical precision. Finally, furious, he headed for his Jeep. Clearly she had called Jessica to come pick her up. Of all the childish, vindictive, bitchy little stunts…

The first person he saw when he slammed through the front door of the Beaumont mansion a short while later was Jessica, who was descending the staircase.

“Well, hey there,” she said with a smile. “How was din—”

“Where the hell is she?”

“Where is who?” Jessica’s befuddlement was obvious, but even as it registered, Zach watched it segue into irritation. She loped down the last steps and strode straight up to him. Hands on her hips, she drew herself to her loftiest posture and thrust her narrow nose up at him. “What do you mean, where is she?” she demanded. “She was supposed to be with you.”

“She was. but we had a… disagreement… and she took off. I figured she called you to come pick her up.”

She stepped back. “Well, you figured wrong. And how dare you wreck her big night out, anyhow?”

A guilty sense of having done exactly that made him testy. “What the hell makes you assume it was something I did? Maybe she wrecked my big night out.”

She just looked at him, and he rolled his shoulders uneasily. “Okay, I didn’t handle something she told me very well.” Then he snapped erect. “But that’s no excuse to run away like some irresponsible little teeny-bopper, and if you didn’t pick her up, then someone else must have. I want to talk to everyone.”

Jessica shrugged. “Knock yourself out.” She started to turn away, but then hesitated, a vestige of unease coloring her expression when she turned back to him. “Lily isn’t exactly the irresponsible type.”

“I know. But she was pretty upset.” He heard Jessica mutter something beneath her breath, but since he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know what it was, he ignored it and headed for the house phone in the parlor.

When he hung up several minutes later, he, too, was beginning to feel uneasy. Everyone was accounted for and no one would even admit to having spoken to Lily, let alone to having collected her from the resort. Jessica had followed him into the parlor, and he vaguely registered the weight of her stare as he pulled out a telephone book and flipped through its pages. Finding the number he sought, he punched it out on the telephone keypad. A moment later he was connected to Rosario’s bell captain.

“‘My name is Zachariah Taylor,” he said crisply as soon as the other man identified himself. “I talked to you earlier about—”

“The pretty blonde,” the bell captain said. “I remember.”

“Yeah, well, the pretty blonde didn’t come home with me. I thought at the time she must have called someone else for a ride, but nobody here has heard from her, either. You told me you saw her go outside. Did she by any chance ask you to call a cab for her first?”

“No, sir. She came out of the ladies’ room and went straight outside. It’s possible she called one herself from a cell phone, though. We got busy about then, so I couldn’t say whether or not a taxi actually arrived during that time.”

Zach thanked him for his cooperation and slowly replaced the receiver. He looked at Jessica. “I don’t like this,” he admitted. “The resort didn’t call her a cab and it’s not like she could have called one for herself, since she doesn’t have a cell phone.”

Jessica made a skeptical sound. ” Everyone has a cell phone.”

“Except Lily and me, apparently. It’s one of the things we talked about at dinner—how we seem to be the last two techno-dinosaurs on earth.” Then out of the blue, he got a flash of the call he’d been in the midst of making to Camp Pendleton regarding a certain South American when his sister and David had shown up. Swearing, he took off for the stairs at a dead run.

“What?” Jessica was right behind him. “What have you thought of?”

He didn’t slow down as his longer stride outstripped hers, but he said over his shoulder, “Call the cab company, Jess, just to be sure. I’ll be back in a minute to explain.” Meanwhile, he’d hope to hell he was wrong and this had nothing to do with Miguel Escavez.

He checked Lily’s room quickly, just in case she’d somehow slipped into the house without being seen. But nothing had been disturbed and she’d clearly not been back. He went next door, grabbed his address book, and headed back downstairs.

Glynnie, David, and Christopher were in the parlor with Jessica when he walked in, and they all turned worried eyes his way. “Jessica says Lily’s missing?” his sister asked.

Shrugging aside her question with a dismissive wave of his hand, he snatched up the phone and punched in the number from his book. But as the phone rang and rang, he realized it was long past office hours. He disconnected and dialed information for Jake Magnusson’s number. As the man in charge of the Colombians’ training, he’d be the fastest source of information.

Jake’s home phone also rang several times, and Zach, on the verge of disconnecting, was trying to think who to contact next when the phone at the other end of the line was abruptly picked up. A deep voice growled, “What?”

“Maggie? It’s Zach. Look, I’m sorry to bother you at home, but—”

“Where the hell have you been, Midnight? You picked one helluva time to go on leave—I’ve been trying to get hold of you practically since you left. We’ve got a problem with one of the nationals you brought back with you from Colombia.”

Ice crawled through Zach’s gut. “Shit. Miguel Es-cavez?”

“That’s the one, all right. The boy’s gone AWOL on us.”

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