Ryan slipped out of the room and locked the door behind him. He hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the knob and then gave the hall a quick check. Empty. He ran for the elevator.
Behind him, the guard slumbered peacefully. Ryan figured he’d sleep until the morning. One less to worry about. He had no idea how many others waited for him two floors up.
He pressed the up button and the elevator doors slid open a few seconds later. The interior was crammed with a group of women. From the sound of the laughter and chatter, it was obvious that they were revved up for an evening of fun. The smell of perfume and alcohol drifted out into the hallway.
“Come on in and join the fun!” a sultry voice called from the back of the crush.
For a second, Ryan considered waiting for the next car. He didn’t want to involve the women in whatever awaited him upstairs, but a woman in a slinky beaded dress and an abundance of flaming red hair grabbed his arm and yanked him into the elevator. He bumped up against her low-cut, well-endowed chest and murmured a polite apology.
She laughed and slid one rounded hip against his upper thigh. “Don’t worry. We don’t bite.” She laughed, something low and wicked. “Not so it hurts anyway.”
The group of all women laughed and the voice in the back added, “We’re on a fast car to the top. Hang on.”
“Guess everyone’s in full party mode, huh?” Ryan said, forcing a false sense of amusement into his own voice.
“You’ve got it, honey,” another woman said, breathing out enough fumes to make Ryan sure he could blow a Blood Alcohol Level above the legal limit all on his own.
“Out with the old and in with the new, is my motto,” the redhead said. “That goes for my politicians, as well as my men.”
The women all laughed again.
“You look as though you’re in for a fun evening,” Ryan said. “Mind if I tag along?”
“We’d be delighted, handsome,” the redhead said, pressing in closer and giving the blond woman on his other side a sharp look of disapproval. The blonde ignored her friend’s attempt to lay claim and leaned in closer.
Ryan slipped a hand around both their waists and grinned. He’d found his cover. His way in. As the elevator door slid open, he patted his jacket and affected a look of distress.
“What wrong?” the redhead asked, a red-lacquered, one-inch nail coming up to gently lift his chin.
“I seem to have lost my invitation.”
Her well-manicured hand slipped quickly into the front of his suit jacket to check the inside pocket. Her touch lingered, sliding out to caress his ribs and down along the inside edge of his cummerbund. “Nope, definitely there,” she purred in his ear. “The kind of invitation I prefer anyway.”
Ryan turned a little to the left, disengaging himself from her roving hand before it got any lower. He covered his rejection with a gentle smile.
Disappointment flashed in her green eyes-eyes that seemed somewhat dull and lifeless compared to another pair of green eyes Ryan had grown to love, a pair of eyes he was desperate to see again.
“Guess I’m out of luck as far as getting into the celebration,” he said with a sigh.
The blonde, smiling with secret amusement at her friend’s obvious strikeout, patted his other arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you through.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the rear of the car. “Right, ladies?”
A chorus of feminine voices shouted their agreement. They had a mission and they weren’t about to fail.
The redhead shrugged, but before she could say anything, the elevator door opened and the women surged forward, pulling him with them on a crested wave of perfume and hair spray. As they started down the hall, they surrounded him, calling to each other as they headed for the security checkpoint.
In the middle of the group, Ryan studied the doorway leading to the terrace. He noted that the men manning the station were no longer Secret Service men, and the marine guard detail was also gone.
In their place stood two rent-a-cop guards, looking slightly harassed and overwhelmed. Apparently Flynn wasn’t taking any chances. He’d effectively eliminated a possible roadblock to the planned assassination. Ryan couldn’t help but wonder what excuse he’d used to get the other men to vacate their post.
The women pushed forward, surrounding the guards with their chatter and gaiety. Several of the women flirted outrageously, reaching out to drape their arms around the men and distracting them with flattery, flashes of long, bare limbs beneath elegant gowns and whispered invitations to sneak away and join them for a drink.
The two men didn’t know what hit them. They craned their necks trying to take everything in, their expressions softening.
Two of the women stepped through the barrier, and as one of them passed Ryan, she slipped him her invitation, covering it with a quick peck on the flustered guard’s cheek.
Ryan stepped up behind her and breezily waved the invitation at the guard who was watching the woman saunter away. She paused at the doorway to the terrace to flash the guard a final grin and a wave. The distracted fellow ran the metal detector over Ryan, not even bothering to check the invitation. He waved him through with barely another glance.
Ryan moved through the standing, cheering crowd. The noise was deafening, pressing down on him and making it seem impossible that he’d ever find Tess among them.
He strained to see over the heads of the people in front and alongside him. No one he recognized. Just a sea of excited faces, the glitter and gleam of the women’s jewelry almost blinding in its brilliance.
Overhead, the lights had been dimmed, a single spotlight focused on the center of the dais. Jacob Starling had moved up to the podium, his ruggedly handsome face beaming out at the crowd. A large American flag, the stripes and stars waving in a breeze, had been projected onto a huge video screen behind him.
A woman Ryan recognized as the vice president’s wife moved up to stand a step behind her husband. Her carefully coifed hair and elegant gown spoke of wealth and years of breeding. She stared in the direction of her husband, her expression an example of wifely adoration. A smile touched her lips.
Starling glanced over his shoulder at her, as if he had noticed for the first time that she’d moved up to join him at the podium. He shot her a look of appreciation. And as the TV camera projecting their image onto dual screens on either side of the dais moved in for the close-up, not a single person in the audience missed him mouthing the words,
The crowd went wild.
Mrs. Starling mouthed the words back to him and the crowd cheered even louder. This was American royalty at its best.
When Starling turned back to the audience, his confidence and ease with being on the stage in front of such a huge crowd was evident. These were his people. His most ardent supporters. He was in his element.
He leaned forward, his lips almost touching the microphone, and his deep voice boomed out over the terrace. “I don’t think coming home has ever felt as good as it does tonight. At this moment. At this time. And in this very place.”
Another wild cheer went up from the audience.
“-And I can’t think of a better group of people to be in front of than all of you.”
The cheers got louder.
Starling smiled broadly, and the power of that famous smile seemed blinding in the glare of the spotlight. Lights danced and glowed about the back of his head, giving off a visible halo effect.
Ryan couldn’t help but think that the effect was an omen. A sign of what was to come.
He pushed through the crowd in front of him, weaving in and out of the people, trying to find Tess. Mrs. Starling had told her to sit with them up on the dais, but Ryan hadn’t seen her anywhere in the row of people sitting behind the long table draped with red, white and blue banners.
Starling held out his arms as if to embrace the crowd and a light breeze drifted across the terrace. “How is everyone this fine evening?”
The audience erupted into a joyful chorus of responses. Their shouts were positive and playful, and Starling’s image on the screens grinned wildly, his charming and handsome appeal engaging.
Ryan could almost understand the ultraright’s fear of the man. He would be unstoppable. Unbeatable. A greyhound running effortlessly for the ultimate prize-the total support and dedication of the American people.
Starling launched into a speech about the past three years. He talked of his frustration, his disillusionment with the current administration’s policies and his disappointment at not being able to make a difference.
Around Ryan, the crowd quieted, listening to their vice president’s tale of woe. Their murmurs of agreement spoke of their sympathy for their crown prince’s predicament.
Ryan knew the vice president was positioning himself for his announcement. And from the sizzle of excitement electrifying the room, the crowd knew the big moment was coming, too. Tension, thick and heavy, hung over the terrace. If the announcement wasn’t made soon, the room would implode all on its own.
Ryan pushed his way through a tight group of people. Few people were sitting at tables. Most stood, craning to see the figure standing on the dais.
Ahead of him, near the front of the room, the group shifted and parted for a brief second. Ryan caught a flash of red and a glimpse of white-blond hair.
But before he could move, the crowd shifted again and the red vanished. He slipped between a cluster of people ignoring their sharp glances of disapproval and murmured comments of annoyance. He pressed on.
He reached the spot a few seconds later, but there was no sign of her. The ball of anxiety in the pit of his stomach tightened. He needed to find her. Now.
Above him, Starling had swung into a rousing speech of no one being left behind. Of all citizens having a place at the table as they moved comfortably into the new millennium.
He searched the crowd and found Flynn, standing off to the side of the room. His posture was relaxed. Confident. But then he spied Ryan and he stiffened. He turned and gestured curtly to two men standing beside him. The two men’s attention immediately focused on Ryan.
They started across the floor toward him, but they were as hampered by the unruly audience as he was. The crowd had whipped itself into a frenzy. People were yelling and stomping their feet. More than a few shrill whistles ripped through the air.
The noise on the terrace had reached a crescendo, almost crushing in its intensity. The sound pounded against Ryan’s eardrums, sending his blood rushing like wildfire through his veins.
In front of him, a man shouted something and then stepped back. In the space of that single second, he saw Tess again.
She stood about thirty yards from him, a sea of bodies separating them. She didn’t see him. Her head was tilted back to watch Starling and the video screens. She was close enough to the dais that the glow from the spotlight bathed her face in its warm glow. Her beauty was breathtaking.
But it was who stood behind her that sent panic through Ryan.
Towering over her, his body pressed close to hers, stood Ian McCaffrey. His hand lay on Tess’s shoulder, his tanned fingers standing out in stark contrast to the ivory whiteness of her skin.
He leaned forward to press his mouth to the curve of her ear. Ryan felt his stomach tighten with dread.
Tess’s stare was fixed and vacant. She seemed to have no reaction to McCaffrey’s whispering. But as Ryan watched, she opened her clutch purse and stuck her hand inside.
Icy shards of fear raced through Ryan’s veins. Oh God, he needed to get to her. Needed to stop her before she was forced to do something she’d regret for the rest of her life. Something that would surely destroy her.
She withdrew her hand from her purse, and the glow from the light glittered on something metallic in her hands. Ryan knew what she held-a gun.
She lifted the weapon with two hands and the crowd around her pressed in, oblivious to what was happening. The roar of voices built, the clapping and stomping of feet became unbearable.
Starling’s own voice, amplified by the microphone, was barely audible above the yelling. The crowd had gone wild with excitement.
Ryan stood on tiptoes and cupped his hands. “Tess!”
She froze, the gun dropping to her side, hidden in the folds of her dress.
Across the floor, McCaffrey raised his eyes to met Ryan’s. Anger flashed within the depth of his eyes like summer lightning gone berserk. His message was clear. Interference from Ryan would not be tolerated.
He spoke urgently in Tess’s ear, and Ryan somehow knew that McCaffrey was using a word or key phrase to trigger something in Tess, to force her to respond to his commands. The roar of the crowd got louder, pressing in on them. Ryan struggled, pawing his way through the sea of bodies, trying to get to her.
Tess’s gaze roved over the crowd as if searching for him. Her eyes were confused. Dazed. But they were no longer vacant.
She was fighting, trying to get out from beneath the conditioning of the seductive pull.
He could only hope that his yelling to her had triggered something. Some memory. Some feeling. Something to interrupt the flow of evil feed into her brain.
McCaffrey straightened, seeming to realize that he’d lost his command over her. She was ignoring him, distracted by the crowd. He reached inside his own jacket and pulled out his own weapon.
Fear chewed at Ryan’s stomach. His time was almost up. He had to reach her. If McCaffrey shot the vice president, Tess would go down with him. The Secret Service would be all over the two of them in a matter of seconds, and if McCaffrey was as suicidal in his approach as Ryan figured him to be, there would be no survivors. Tess would die in the same hail of bullets as McCaffrey.
He plowed through the crowd, pushing and shoving people aside. Angry shouts and taunts surrounded him, but he ignored them.
Tess turned and saw him.
Relief ripped through him, almost paralyzing him with its intensity. He could tell that something about his appearance had broken through to her.
She either remembered something or remembered him. He didn’t know which and he didn’t care. All that mattered was she had reacted. Somehow he needed to get to her, to pull her away to safety.
He was almost there, an arm’s length away when the sound of a gunshot exploded in the warm evening air.
The crowd went silent for a second, moving restlessly, unsure what they’d heard. Ryan tried again to push his way through, but the bodies were packed in too tight.
From somewhere up front, a woman screamed, “A gun! She’s got a gun!”
Another shot crackled over the heads of the crowd and they went berserk. Everyone tried to turn and run for the patio doors at once.
Ryan found himself pushed backward with the swell of the crowd. He lost his footing and lost sight of Tess. An overweight woman elbowed him in the chin and stampeded around him. Ryan ducked under the arm of a couple attempting to run arm in arm.
Over the heads of the crowd, Ryan saw Starling drop below the top of the podium. Whether he was shot or simply getting out of the line of fire was unknown.
A swarm of Secret Service men rushed to shield him. People scrambled off the platform like frightened geese, their arms flapping for balance as they jumped, their faces twisted with fear. The red, white and blue banner attached to the table tore and fluttered to the floor. But no one noticed, they ran right over it.
Desperate, Ryan pushed his way through the crowd surging toward him, determined to find Tess. To save her.
He found her stretched out on her back a few yards away, her arms flung out from her side. The gun lay next to her.
Her hair had spilled from its elegant upsweep and lay fanned across her face, hiding her behind a pale veil. His heart pounding, Ryan knelt beside her and gently brushed the hair out of her eyes. Her eyes were closed, her face turned away.
It was then that he noticed the wet patch darkening the red of her dress, a sinister patch of black spreading along her entire left side. He could barely breathe as reality hit him.
She’d been hit.
As he bent to touch her, someone rounded him from behind, knocking him sideways. He fell to his knees, his palms skidding on the smooth tiles.
“Facedown on the floor,” a voice ordered.
Ryan glanced up. Five or six men in suits and guns drawn surrounded him.
“She’s hurt. Let me help. I’m a doctor-”
From behind, someone jammed a foot into his shoulder and sent Ryan face first onto the floor. His cheek hit hard and for a moment his world tilted crazily.
“You don’t need to do anything, buddy. Just stay down and stay quiet.” The agent’s foot stayed firmly wedged against his shoulder, pressing him to the floor.
Ignoring the command, determined to reach Tess, Ryan snaked a hand across the tiles to her. Nothing anyone said or did would stop him from getting to her. He had to know. He had to see if she was still alive.
He pressed his fingers to the side of her neck. Nothing. He wiggled forward a millimeter more, disregarding the increased pressure of the foot on his back. He moved his fingers along the warm skin of her neck, searching for a sign, any sign of life.
His own pulse pounded in his ears.
But he felt nothing. No flutter. No movement.
The man standing over him ground his foot into his back, emphasizing that he meant for him to stop moving. But Ryan crawled another fraction of an inch forward, trying one final time.
He needed to believe that he wasn’t too late. That she hadn’t already slipped away from him before he could reach her. Before he could tell her that she had beaten Flynn. Before he could tell her he loved her.
And then, beneath the tips of his fingers, he felt a faint fluttering beat. A relief so sharp and so painful Ryan thought he might die from the ecstasy of it rushed through him.
She was alive.
Her eyes opened, and he stared into the familiar green of her gaze. She smiled, a slight, one-sided lift of her mouth. “I didn’t think you’d get here in time,” she whispered, her voice raspy, barely above a whisper. “I kept thinking, what will I do without Ryan around to rescue me?”
He slid his hand up the side of her neck to gently stroke the soft paleness of her cheek. “You’ll never know because I plan on being here for a long time to come.”
He lifted his head toward the group standing around them. “Get an ambulance,” he shouted. “She needs medical attention now!”
No one moved, their eyes as hot and dangerous as molten steel just poured from the mold.
“Then let me help her. I’m a doctor.” No movement. Another foot had joined the first to keep him pinned to the floor. “At least let me stop the bleeding.”
His answer came when someone pulled his arms behind his back and a pair of handcuffs were snapped onto his wrists. Ryan bucked, trying to pull away, but they yanked him away from Tess and stood him on his feet.
“You won’t be helping her or anyone else,” one of the agents said. “If I was you, I’d be more concerned about my own hide.”
Ryan twisted his body and tried shoulder-butting one of the men, but they immediately converged on him, subduing him.
“Don’t fight them, Ryan,” Tess said. “Just do as they say.” Her voice had slipped a few notches as her strength seemed to seep away with each word spoken.
As he watched helplessly, her eyes closed and she drifted off. “Let me help her,” he begged, no longer fighting. “She’ll bleed out.”
One of the men bent down and pressed a tablecloth from a nearby table against her side in a futile effort to stop the bleeding.
“Get out of my way,” someone ordered from across the terrace.
Ryan looked up to see another man break through the crowd and stride toward them. He was about fifty-seven or fifty-eight, and upon reaching them, he immediately crouched down next to Tess, his big shoulders hunching a bit as he leaned forward to tenderly brush her hair back. His fingers trailed across her forehead in a touch very similar to a caress.
“Paramedics are on their way up, sir,” the agent, who was applying pressure to the wound, said anxiously.
The older man nodded, never lifting his head.
His face, a map etched deep with the lessons of life, softened as he whipped off his jacket and gently lifted Tess’s head to tuck it under. The revolver clipped to a holster nestled in the small of his back told Ryan he was an agent. The way the other agents deferred to him told him the man was probably in charge.
Across the terrace, the crowd parted like obedient lemmings and two paramedics burst through. Their heavy packs bobbed against their hips as they ran up.
The older man stood up, seeming to sense that he was only in the way. One of the paramedics took over from the younger agent, who was applying pressure.
His attention turned to the men holding Ryan. “Get him over to the hospital. I’m going in the ambulance. I’ll question him there.”
“Forget it. I’m going in the ambulance, too.” Ryan tried to shake off the two men holding him.
The older agent’s gaze, grave and infinitely weary, ticked over to meet Ryan’s. Unlike a moment ago when he’d paused to stroke Tess’s face and his sadness seemed overwhelming, nothing in his face revealed what he was thinking. “You’ll go where I say you go, Donovan. I don’t have time for you right now. Tess is my main concern.”
He turned away.
Ryan didn’t care how the man knew his name, but the fact that he seemed concerned about Tess calmed him some. He strained to see past the senior agent and over the heads of the two paramedics. One was hooking her up to a heart monitor and the other one was starting an IV. They’d already slapped on a pressure bandage. The reassuring beat of her heart playing out across the monitor’s screen helped Ryan believe that she’d make it to the hospital.
“At least let me go with her to the hospital to make sure she’s okay. Then I’ll answer any questions you have.”
For a moment he thought he saw a flicker of compassion in the old guy’s eyes, but it was gone as soon as it registered. He turned away, pointedly ignoring him and blocking his view of Tess.
“Get him out of here,” he ordered.
The two agents guarding him stepped up and pulled him after them. No amount of protesting had any effect. Ryan was forced off the terrace, forced to leave Tess’s side.