Shadow game (Chapter Fifteen)

JEFF Hollister was smuggled back into the house the day of the fund-raiser. Lily spent most of her time working with the men, ensuring they did their mental exercises. She could tell she wouldn't be able to hold them much longer. They were men of action and hiding; even though the training they were doing was necessary, it didn't sit well with them. They groused, albeit good-naturedly, each time she raised the noise level and gave them multiple tasks to do.

"The lot of you are babies," she teased, looking around Hollister's bedroom where they all tended to congregate. She loved the way they all stuck together, never leaving their fallen comrade alone.

"You're a slave driver, Lily," Sam said.

She couldn't look at Ryland. She had spent the last two nights waking up in his arms in the middle of the night, crying like a baby. Even in the dark, when they were alone, she hadn't worked up the courage to tell him what she would be doing. She blurted it out in front of the others, hoping he wouldn't go ballistic on her.

"I can't remember whether I mentioned it or not, but I have to go out this evening and I'm already running late." She glanced at her watch for effect, trying to appear casual. "I still have to dress. I'm giving a speech at a fundraiser for Donovans."

There was instant silence. All the men seemed to hitch forward, staring at her as if she had just announced she was pregnant. They looked from her to Ryland. He didn't disappoint them.

"What the hell do you mean, you're going to some fundraiser? You've lost your mind, Lily." Ryland's voice was very low, clipped between clenched teeth.

Lily felt her heart jump. She would have preferred him raising his voice to her. The sudden tension in the room added to her nervousness.

Ryland took a step toward her. "Thornton is involved up to his eyebrows in this mess. He can't get to you in this house, so he's luring you out into the open. If you don't start taking your safety seriously, Lily, I'm going to have to do something about it."

Lily patted Jeff Hollister's shoulder before straightening up and turning to look at Ryland. She tried to appear unaffected by his anger, but she was shrinking against the bed like a coward. "I think you've been cooped up too long with Arly. Believe me, I wouldn't dare not be aware of safety, he'd draw and quarter me." She smoothed back Jeff's hair, hoping to change the subject. It bothered her that her hand trembled and Ryland's dark eyes noted it. "Are you doing those exercises I gave you? I know you're still weak, Jeff, but they're so important. If you can build your mental shield, you can stand being out in public and around other people for longer periods of time. It's no different than pumping up your body by lifting weights."

"It's a lot harder," Hollister objected, attempting to look as pathetic as possible. "I just got back and the trip was rough on me. That brain doctor poked and prodded in my skull. It's not ready for all that muscle building."

"That muscle building is going to enable you to go home to your family. Stop being a baby," she ordered. "Now, if you'll all excuse me, I have to get ready for tonight."

An instant protest went up. Nico actually rose, a fluid rippling of muscle that caused her heart to beat faster in alarm. She backpedaled toward the door. "Just keep working and behave. All of you. I'll be checking in later and I'll tell you how it went." She hurried out of the room. They were all looking dangerous.

Ryland followed her down the hall, his eyes glittering with menace. "I thought you had a high IQ, woman. Can't you see how risky this could be?"

"The fundraiser was planned months in advance. My father was giving a speech, and I'm going to give it in his place. Has it occurred to you that if I don't continue to act normal and go about my everyday life, I'll come under suspicion and then we'll all be in jeopardy?"

"For God's sake, Lily, you have a military team parked outside your fence, patrolling the parameters of the estate and trying to hear every word said using devices you wouldn't understand."

She turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised.

"All right, maybe you would understand," he conceded, "but damn it, you are under suspicion. You have to start keeping a lower profile."

Lily took the stairs two at a time, unconsciously trying to get away from Ryland. He was right, of course, and she knew it. There was some danger in doing anything Phillip Thornton wanted her to do, but it was a calculated risk and well worth it as far as she was concerned.

"Lily!" Ryland kept pace easily.

She paused just inside her sitting room. "I have to go, Ryland. I promised I'd give the speech and, believe it or not, funding is important. Several of the researchers need grants. Their work is important. My father never missed it and he detested parties and just about anything else that kept him from his work, yet he insisted I go too."

"I doubt seriously if he would think it was important enough to risk your life. You've already been attacked once, Lily."

"Because I found the recorder." She stopped dead in the middle of the bedroom. "There was another disk, Ryland. I slipped it into my lab coat pocket before I crawled out from under the desk. I bet they never even knew it was there. Why would they? How could I have forgotten? It's probably in my jacket pocket right now, hanging in my office." She looked at him. "I have to get it."

"Not tonight, Lily. You're making me crazy. It isn't worth your life. You could have been killed." His fingers curled into a tight fist. His gut was churning with fear for her. "Why the hell do you have to be so stubborn about this? If you want the damned disk, I'll break into the labs and retrieve it for you."

"You will not!" The alarm showed in her eyes. He was certainly capable of doing such a thing. "Ryland, don't be crazy on me. I have to go to this event. I really do. It's very political. Congressmen, senators, everyone who is anyone influential will be there. Everyone is going to be represented, including the military. Don't you realize what that means? General Ranier will be there. I've known him since I was a child. When I see him I'll know if he's lying. If I talk to him on the phone I won't be able to tell."

Lily slipped into her dressing room where her dress was already laid out. She stepped into the shimmering gown, a stunning red that clung lovingly to her breasts and waist like a second skin but plunged daringly backless nearly to her buttocks. Along the curve of her hips, the dress began to flare, leaving her room to dance. Sparkling diamonds adorned her earlobes and a small diamond pendant hung nestled just above her breasts.

"The general has come to the fundraiser for the last three years and he's always danced with me. I've known him for years and we always considered him a good friend. It's the perfect opportunity to talk to him." She tilted her head to one side, studying her image in the mirror as she held her hair up to see which style best suited her dress. She met his gaze in the looking glass and laughed self-consciously. "I rarely do my hair or makeup for these things. Someone comes here to the house. I didn't want to bring anyone here this time in case it was used as an opportunity to slip someone into the house and put you all in danger. But I'm not very good at this."

She had spent an hour in the bath, another hour choosing her dress before going to see the men. Lily looked closer and frowned at her image.

"Wear it down." Ryland's voice was harsh, his expression intimidating as he came up behind her. "You look beautiful. Too beautiful to go to this thing alone." His hand brushed lightly over the curve of her bottom. "Do I have to worry about what you're wearing beneath this thing?"

She leaned back against him, fitting snugly into his body. "You're so obsessed with my underwear."

"Not your underwear, your lack of underwear. There's a difference."

"Well, look at it, Ryland, there's nowhere to put underwear, it messes up the lines." She smiled at him in the mirror. "Don't you prefer smooth lines?"

"It has no back. There's no material at all." His hand nudged at the edges of her dress, the clingy material cupping her breasts so lovingly. "You're going to start a riot in this dress."

"You do like the dress." Her eyes were beginning to sparkle.

"You're going to give the older men heart attacks." He brushed his knuckles along her swelling flesh. "And all the men are going to have painful hard-ons." He pushed against her so there was no mistaking his meaning.

Lily laughed at him, turning into his arms, her mouth seeking his. She gave herself up completely to his kiss, burning in his arms, feeding the flames in his belly so that every cell in his body hungered for her. Needed her. Craved her. Ryland tightened his arms around her. Why did be always feel as if she would flit away from him? One minute she belonged to him, shared his mind, his skin, the next gone so far he couldn't hold on to her.

Lily made a sound and he realized he was crushing her to him. "I'm sorry, honey," he murmured, brushing kisses over her face. "I don't want you risking your safety just so you can speak to the general, if he's a part of this thing, and it looks very much as if he is…"

"Then I'll know, won't I? I've always been able to read him when we're dancing; even if we shook hands I could feel his emotions. He's too busy thinking about other people to protect himself." Lily slipped out of his arms. "I'll be fine. Stop worrying." She glanced at her image in the mirror. "Thank heavens a few days have taken the swelling down. At least I can tone down the bruises with makeup."

"Where is this thing?"

She shrugged. "Arly knows. He can get hold of me. It's the Victoria Hotel."

"Of course. The one with the glass dome and you have to be wearing a suit to get through the door."

"That's the one."

Ryland's hand curved around the nape of her neck and dragged her back to him, his mouth hard and demanding, feeding on hers, branding her his. Abruptly he turned and walked out of her room.

Lily stared after him for a long while, her fingers against her lips. The taste of him burned in her mouth, in her body long after she arrived at the hotel and had begun her circuit of greeting the other guests. It was strange how she felt Ryland with her, almost as if a part of him lingered inside her. And maybe it did.

THE music was loud and rhythmic, pounding out a beat that seemed to consume her. The room was enormous and still the crowd spilled over, into the halls and the dining room. There were so many people she felt crushed. It was difficult to keep her barriers erect and not be overwhelmed by the tremendous outpouring of emotional energy crackling in the air around her.

As Lily moved through the room, working the crowd, she went into automatic fundraiser mode. She read each person as she shook hands or exchanged hugs and fake kisses. Peter Whitney had drilled the importance of knowing the right people, getting them on her side. Now, more than ever, it was important to her. While they ate their exquisitely prepared meals she gave her impassioned speech on helping mankind and the need the researchers had for funding. She pledged a large sum to start the ball rolling and smiled with the right touch of confidence as they applauded her.

She drifted through the crowds, talking and laughing, saying all the right things, making her way to the ballroom. The muted lighting in the ballroom was much easier on her eyes. The pounding music managed to give her some relief from the excitement and sexual tension, the arguments flaring here and there, the undercurrent of affairs and conspiracies and corporate gossip.

Lily watched the women in their tight clinging clothes entice the men. Mere glances, a lift of an eyebrow, a whisper in an ear. The brush of bodies as they secretly touched, coming together for a stolen moment in the shadowed room and moving apart again. The looks. Assessing. Speculative. Sexy. This was the kind of place she would love to share with Ryland. Lily slid deeper into the shadows, watching the dancers. The music throbbed through her body, the beat hard and insistent. She had never noticed how the music could crawl inside one's body and heat the blood.

"Lily, dear." Phillip Thornton toasted her with his glass. "I want to introduce you to Captain Ken Hilton. He's been waiting to dance with you all evening. You look wonderful. Your father would have been proud of your speech."

"Thank you, Phillip." Lily ignored the sudden churning in her stomach, avoided touching Thornton by smiling up at the captain. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

The moment her hand slipped into his, Hilton swung her expertly onto the dance floor. He moved with complete assurance, his strength and confidence in his very hold. "I've wanted to meet the famous Dr. Whitney for a long time," he said.

Lily glanced up at him. "My father is the famous Dr. Whitney. I hide in the lab."

He laughed. "What a shame. No one as beautiful as you are should be locked up in a laboratory."

Her lashes fluttered and she whirled close to his body, then spun away from him. His hands guided her close and as he brought her back to him, he was more possessive. "You're an excellent dancer, Dr. Whitney."

"Lily." She smiled up at him. He thought she was an easy mark. A woman with too much money and vulnerable with the disappearance of her father. He was supposed to keep an eye on her and his duty just might have a few fringe benefits. She allowed the knowledge to wash through her before she raised her barriers and glided around the floor with him. He wasn't the first man to want her money and he wouldn't be the last.

"Are you here with Colonel Higgens?" She looked as wide-eyed as she could manage. "Or the general?"

"General McEntire," Captain Hilton said. "And call me Ken."

As he whirled her close to the shadows of the wall, Lily caught a glimpse of a pair of eyes watching them. Eyes as black as night. As cool as ice. Eyes that followed them around the dance floor while the body remained as still as stone. She nearly stumbled, had to cling a bit to recover. Naturally the captain thought she had done so on purpose.

What was Nicolas doing there? If Nicolas was there, did that mean Ryland was somewhere in the ballroom? Somewhere in the crowd? She couldn't concentrate on dancing, half terrified that he might really have been so arrogant as to come, and excited to think he really had dared such danger for her.

Even as she searched the darkest corners of the room, she smiled up at her partner. "Perhaps we should get a drink, Captain."

He gripped her elbow as if he were afraid of losing her in the crush of bodies. The lights were so dim it was nearly impossible to see. Hilton kept her close as he shoved his way to the bar, waving to get the bartender's attention.

A man in a dark suit fell into Lily, steadied her, murmured an apology, and moved back into the crowd almost before she could identify him as Tucker.

"Dr. Whitney?" Hilton sounded worried. His large body crowded closer to her. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."

Her smile was brilliant. She should have known Ryland would be close. It should have made her angry, but she felt loved and protected instead. "A little jostling never hurt anybody. By any chance did Phillip Thornton ask you to look out for me?"

The captain froze in the act of dragging a glass toward them. "I wanted the chance to look after you. General McEntire and Colonel Higgens both thought you might be in danger of some kind. I volunteered for the assignment." Hilton swore under his breath as a woman in a flame-colored, nearly see-through dress brushed up against him as she slipped past, smiling seductively up at him.

"Ask her to dance," Lily suggested. "Live a little, Captain, she's much more your type."

The woman was staring blatantly at Hilton, fluttering her eyelashes, her ruby lips forming a kiss.

"She wants you," Lily teased.

Unexpectedly Captain Hilton grinned at her, the first genuine smile she'd yet seen on him. "She'd eat me alive, a woman like that. I can face a couple of men with guns and knives and never flinch, but I'd run if she looked twice at me."

Lily laughed. "You'd better put your running shoes on, Hilton, because she's looked more than once."

The captain shook his head. "I'll just stick close to you for protection."

"You can't. No one will ask me to dance if you're standing there all big and mean looking. And I promised General Ranier the next dance."

Lily patted his shoulder. The captain seemed confused, staring at the woman who seemed so blatantly to want to seduce him. Lily understood completely the collective energy pouring into the air around them, the whispers of command, the subtle influence on the captain and the predatory woman. "Go for it," she said, her voice low as she added her energy to that of the GhostWalkers.

Captain Hilton moved away from her, his eyes on the woman. Lily watched the long fingernails crawl up his arm, the scantily clad body rub up against his as the couple slipped into the shadows.

Lily looked around but she didn't see any more familiar faces. But she felt them. They were all around her. She was torn between fear and excitement, adrenaline heightening every sense. She made her way toward the front of the room, moving around the outer parameter of the dance floor. She couldn't stop her gaze from wandering into the shadows even as she smiled, nodded, and greeted people.

She spotted General Ranier and switched directions to intercept him. He was in the middle of a crowd of men including Colonel Higgens, Phillip Thornton, and General McEntire. As she approached them the colonel stiffened and his gaze searched the ballroom, obviously looking for Captain Hilton. Lily pasted on her party smile.

"Gentlemen," she greeted regally, sweeping past Higgens to tuck her hand in the crook of General Ranier's arm. "What a pleasure to see you all here. Quite a turnout this evening. Phillip, as usual you outdid yourself. I think the dinner and dance is a complete success."

"Thank you, Lily." Thornton beamed at her, instantly distracted by the compliment.

She rose up on her toes to kiss the general's cheek. "My favorite man. It's so good to see you again. You must come for dinner one evening."

"Lily." The general's hug nearly crushed her. "The disappearance of your father is a terrible blow. I've been traveling so much and kept missing you when I phoned. Naturally, I've been keeping up with the investigation. How are you doing? The truth now. Delia is here somewhere and she's been quite concerned about you."

"She sent me a lovely letter, General," Lily acknowledged, "inviting me to come and stay with you. That was so thoughtful of you both."

"We meant the invitation. You shouldn't be alone rattling around in that monstrosity of a house your father loved so much. Delia's worried you'll bury yourself in your work."

"I've gone to the laboratories a couple of times but mostly I work out of my home. Phillip has been wonderful." She tossed the president of Donovans a sweet smile and turned her full attention to General Ranier. "I would love to dance with you, sir, it's always the highlight of my evening." Lily dropped a graceful curtsey.

The general took her hand immediately. "I'm honored."

Colonel Higgens stared after them suspiciously as the general whirled her onto the dance floor. Lily looked right through him, not deigning to notice his boorish behavior.

The waltz provided Lily with the perfect opportunity for conversation. The general spun her across the floor, expertly guiding her through the crush of dancers, taking her out of sight of the group with whom he had been talking.

"Tell me the truth now, Lily girl, how are you really? And did I hear correctly that someone attacked you the other day in your father's office?"

Lily was trying to find some evidence of wrongdoing, of guilt or malevolence, but General Ranier was swamping her with concern. "Who told you?"

"Oh, I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to the well-being of my favorite girl. I've known you since you were eleven years old, Lily. You had the biggest eyes, very solemn, and you talked like a grown-up even then. I loved the sound of your laugh. Delia and I never had children after we lost our son and you filled that gaping hole for us. I bribe Roger to keep me informed. He calls my house directly so we don't have to go through my aide. The captain is a bright boy but a bit of a stuffed shirt."

Lily's gaze was searching the shadows. A couple spun dangerously close, lightly brushing Lily's arm. She caught the flash of teeth and the laughing eyes of Gator as he took his partner back into the crowd. The audacity of the GhostWalkers amazed her. She found herself laughing out loud.

"So you think he's a stuffed shirt too, do you?"

"Your aide? I've never met him, have I?"

"You were dancing with his brother, Lily. Captain Ken Hilton is my aide's brother. I thought you knew one another."

Lily turned the information over in her mind. "Were you aware my father called your office four times, as well as sent various emails, the week before his disappearance? And that he wrote you several letters detailing his concerns with the Special Forces team? He also called your residence repeatedly."

"He didn't leave a message. We were traveling, but I always retrieved my messages."

The general stopped dead on the dance floor. At once Lily felt the warning. If he isn't part of the conspiracy, Lily, and they think he knows too much, they'll kill him. Get him moving, keep him calm. Ryland's voice whispered over her skin, fluttered in her mind. She moved with the rhythm of the music, urging the General back into the dance steps. "Please, sir, you can't stop, you can't look as if we're discussing anything but light topics."

General Ranier responded immediately, throwing back his head and laughing as he took her deeper into the shadows and into the anonymity of the crowd. "What are you implying, Lily?" There was no uncle voice now, he was all commander, insisting on the truth. His dark eyes bored into her face.

Lily regarded him without flinching. "My father asked me to consult on the project. The day he disappeared I went down to the laboratories. The men were isolated from each other, depersonalized and living in cages where they had no privacy whatsoever. They had been sent out into the field against my father's specific instructions. He warned Colonel Higgens repeatedly that they needed stronger shields. There were three deaths I can't prove but suspect were murder and one attempted murder I can prove."

"These are serious allegations, Lily, do you know what you're accusing a respected officer of doing? Colonel Higgens is a respected man, a man of honor."

"It isn't just Colonel Higgens. General McEntire was aware of the project long before the escape of the men and his pretended demands to be included. Phillip Thornton is in on it too."

"On what, Lily? You're talking murder. Conspiracy. These are high-ranking officers in the United States…" He trailed off, his features hardening. A muscle ticked along his jaw. "My God, Lily, you may have uncovered the very thing we've been searching for. This is dangerous. Don't you talk to anyone at all."

"General, the men…"

"Lily, I mean it. You aren't to talk to anyone." He gave her a little shake. "If what I suspect is true, these men will kill you if they think you know something."

"They'll kill you too, General. They killed my father already. I'd be very careful of your aide if I were you. You're the only chance those men have."

The music ended and the general walked her to the edge of the dance floor. "Lily, tell me you had nothing to do with that escape. You don't know where those men are, do you? They could be in on this and they are dangerous. I've had reports."

"Just remember who wrote those reports, General. Think of the money other governments and terrorist groups would pay to get their hands on this ability. By making it look as if the experiment were a total failure, by discrediting the men and cutting them off from a legitimate chain of command, Higgens could easily control the situation. I'll bet he's in charge of finding them and he's branded them dangerous…"

"Lily, they are dangerous. Do you have contact with these men?" His voice was gruff, demanding an answer. "I forbid you to put yourself in danger. Delia would be devastated if anything happened to you. I won't have it, Lily. I'll put you under house arrest at my residence and have you guarded day and night."

"How do you know for certain whom you can trust? I was afraid to talk to you about this because you didn't answer my father's calls or emails."

"I never received your father's messages or his letters, Lily. You do believe me, don't you? I can't believe he's really gone." She could hear the sorrow in his voice, read it in his mind. He couldn't fake such sadness.

"They threw him into the ocean. I knew when he died."

General Ranier hugged her. She could feel his deep sorrow, the anger in him beginning to stir. The outrage that he might know the men responsible. "I'm sorry, Lily, he was a great man and my friend."

"Don't worry about me, General. Arly sees to it that I'm perfectly safe. No one's going to bother me in my home," she assured him. "We've been together too long. They'll be afraid of what we might say to one. another. You're going to have to act natural in front of them until we find proof."

"Not we, Lily, me. And I mean that, consider it an order. You stay out of this. And if you know anything about those men and their disappearance, you'd better tell me now."

Lily remained stubbornly silent.

General Ranier sighed. "I'm afraid poor Delia is going to have a terrible headache after these next couple of dances. You check in with me, Lily, every day. Call and speak with Delia and let her know you're all right."

"I will, General." She kissed his cheek. "Thank you for just being you. You have no idea how relieved I am."

Lily watched him stalk through the crowd before turning back to survey the dancers. Lily began walking the perimeter of the dance floor. A slow, leisurely circuit. Excitement was blossoming. Hope. Fear. So many emotions, intense and difficult to control. Her pulse leapt, her heart raced.

Come to me, Lily. Ryland's voice brushed seductively in her mind. She could hear his raw hunger. There in the midst of danger and intrigue she knew what he was thinking and it had nothing to do with generals and colonels and conspiracies.

He was here in the same room with her. Ryland Miller. Somewhere in the shadows, a part of the throbbing music. A part of her. She moved through the crowd, her body alive. Needy. Seductive. Her breasts ached and her skin felt hot. Her blood thickened and heated, pooling low to pulse in time to the music.

Lily knew he was watching her, she could feel the weight of his stare. Everything feminine in her rose up to answer his call, reveled in his stare. She moved as only a lover could move, her body saying without words what her heart could not. Men stopped her briefly, murmuring invitations. She barely noticed, shaking her head, knowing he was watching her effect on other men as she moved with complete confidence through the crush of bodies. Knowing he watched her with hot, hungry eyes. For Lily, there was only her phantom lover, bold enough, arrogant enough, crazy enough to dare follow her here when he was in far more danger than she could ever be.

Lily knew she should leave, not give in to temptation. Ryland was in danger even coming near her. But the risk of discovery only added to her heightened awareness, her sizzling senses. Her body came alive. Her heart lifted and she found herself smiling. Her hips swayed, a sultry invitation as she wound in and out of the crowd on the edges of the dance floor. She was grateful she had dressed with such care earlier, sliding the shimmering dress over her scented skin, pretending it was for him. Ryland. Pretending she was meeting him on the dance floor.

Of course he had read her fantasy in her mind while she stood in front of the mirror showing him the dress lovingly caressing her breasts, hugging the curve of her hips. She had wanted him to crave her while she was gone. To think about her back so daringly bare all the way to the curve of her buttocks.

Lily didn't look to see where their enemies were. She trusted Ryland to know. She trusted his men to protect him, to watch the colonel closely and keep him away. Lily continued her slow pace around the room, waiting. The anticipation building. Heat curled low, a damp, rich invitation, her body calling to her lover.

She felt his breath first, on the nape of her neck. The heat of his body, close to hers. His hand slid, fingers splayed, around her waist, intimately, possessively, just under her breast so that she ached for his touch. He moved with her, a perfect union as he took her out onto the dance floor, whirling her into the mass of couples.

Lily looked up at him as their bodies came together, touched briefly, and parted. She looked up and he stole her breath. His black hair spilled around his head in a freefall of silky curls. His gray eyes glittered a molten silver. His body glided next to hers, barely touched, skin sliding against skin, his hand guiding her steps with complete mastery. Intricate steps, their bodies brushing intimately. It was exciting. Erotic. Making love on the dance floor just as she knew it would be.

Ryland's eyes held hers captive. She couldn't look away from him. Didn't want to look away from him. She wanted to be lost there for all time, in the heat of his hunger. The music moved through them, over them, surrounded them with fire and passion. As he whirled her close, holding her against him for several heartbeats, his hand caressed the side of her breast, finding creamy skin along the edges of the material of her gown.

Fire raced through her, flames licking over skin like tiny fiery tongues. Her nipples were taut so that each time she moved, her dress teased with the friction. He drew her close again, into the shelter of his arms, their bodies swaying in perfect accord to the music. Lily was grateful for the pulsing light that helped to hide the couples on the large dance floor. Her body molded itself to Ryland's, every step they rubbed against one another, her breasts against the heavy muscles of his chest, his hands skimming along the curve of her hip, caressing her bottom, the feel of his thick erection pressing against her with every step. A building of heat that smoldered and breathed with a life of its own.

She turned her head from his shoulder to look for the colonel, afraid they had been on the dance floor too long to escape detection, even in the dim light.

Don't think of another man, think only of me. The words brushed in her mind. His knuckles deliberately brushed over her nipples, his mouth touched her neck. They moved apart, swayed together, his hand sliding dangerously over her thigh, brushing along the apex of her legs. Her entire body clenched, her blood thickened.

The breath rushed out of her lungs, her heart stuttered. Every sane thought was gone, the other dancers were gone. Only Ryland remained real with his hard body and glittering eyes. He whirled her away from him again, brought her back, a captive between his legs, his thighs trapping her leg, his fierce arousal riding along the curve of her hip for a brief moment of anticipation, of total awareness.

He held her there while his body moved to the pounding beat of the music, his hips surging suggestively. Each movement sent lightning arcing through his bloodstream as his thick erection came into contact with her soft, yielding body. The passion of the music was a pounding in his head, in his body.

He had wanted to be different this time, to do all the little things a woman needed a man to do. The whispered laughter. The intimate talk. The shared outings. He wanted to court her the way Lily deserved. But his body went up in flames the moment he was with her. Not just flames but a firestorm burning out of control. Hot and bright and dangerous.

He had to hear her breath catching in her throat, see her eyes go sultry. She was so damned sexy, so hot his every restraint, his every control was gone around her. Dangerous for her, dangerous for anyone who tried to interfere.

The music was ending, the last notes dying away. He intended to let her go, to watch her circle the room, to be satisfied with the brief contact, but little jackhammers were ripping through his brain and he hurt so bad he was afraid he wouldn't be able to walk, getting them safely off the dance floor.

The next number was slow and dreamy, the lights lowering even more. With Lily in his arms, Ryland guided the way through the mass of moving bodies away from any watchers. The captain had his hands full. The woman in the flame-colored dress at the bar had taken to Ryland's suggestion quickly and easily. He knew his men were in the shadows, waiting for him to slip away. Expecting him to return Lily to the security of the house now that they had ensured her safety and allowed him his one dance. Ryland checked that eyes weren't following then-progress as he moved Lily deeper into the shadows where he wanted her. Where he needed her.