Shadow game (Chapter Sixteen)

THE spiraling staircase was a massive structure. In scouting the hotel, Nicolas had discovered the hidden recesses in stairwell. Built in the thirties, the building had been renovated since, and inside the locked utility closet there was a small, narrow door that had been covered over with paper. It led to a tiny private room that had most likely been used for things illegal. Nicholas had shown him the hideaway in case of an emergency. Ryland was certain this was an emergency.

He took her beneath the stairs, turned a corner, and went down a small series of steps to the utility closet door. He had no problem getting past the heavy lock and moving her right through to the small, narrow room where so many others had secreted themselves over the years. He laughed softly and told her, "In the speakeasy days, they had peepholes in here. You can still see the cracks."

She didn't answer him. Couldn't answer him. She didn't know whether to slap his face for being so completely arrogant and certain of himself, or whether to fling herself at him and kiss him senseless.

They stared at one another, the heat flaring relentlessly between them. He made the decision for her. His body crowded hers deeper into the shadow of the stairwell, his arms tightening possessively. "Kiss me, Lily. I have to have your mouth."

She couldn't resist the ache in his voice, the lure of the forbidden. Lily tilted her head back, gasped when his lips fused with hers. Hot. Starving. She tasted passion. She tasted desire. His tongue stroked and cajoled, sweeping aside her every inhibition, her every fear, so that she answered him, fire for fire.

This man was hers. He belonged to her. Wanted her. Needed her. She could never resist the urgency of his need. He was devouring her, right there in the shadows, his hands cupping her buttocks to align her body more perfectly with his. From mere feet away came the murmur of voices, laughter, and the chink of ice in glasses. The music invaded through the cracks in the thin walls, so loud it nearly shook the floor, filling the tiny hidden room. Ryland lifted his head, his eyes dark with raw passion as he looked into her blue gaze. His body was painfully aroused and she was looking up at him, bemused.

He could see the outline of her nipples, dark, thrusting against the thin clingy material of her gown. The sight drew him, tempted him. He slid his hand up the side of the dress, pushing the material away from her ribs, inching it out of the way to expose one full breast.

The cool air on her heated skin only added to her acute sensitivity. She wanted him right there, wanted his hands on her, his body buried deep in hers. The addiction to him was beyond anything she had ever experienced or had conceived could be possible. She wanted to rip away his shirt and feast her eyes on his chest, run her hands over his muscles, feel his need of her growing in her hand, against her body. Lily moved deliberately, bringing up her hands, running her fingertips along her ample curves, tracing a path down her flat stomach, reveling in the way his hot gaze followed.

Ryland's body hardened even more. She looked lush and sexy, pressed against the wall, her lips swollen and dark from his kisses. She looked wanton, her elegant gown shimmering, her breasts teasing his heightened senses. His fingers followed the path hers had taken over her breasts, skimmed the soft flesh, lingered, stroked, and massaged.

He felt her body tremble in response. He breathed warm air over her already taut nipple, slowly bent his head to temptation.

She moaned when his mouth, hot and moist, closed over her breast. His tongue danced to the music, stabbed and caressed. He suckled strongly, wanting to devour her, brand her.

At that moment, more than anything else, he needed to bury his fingers deep inside of her. Needed to feel her wet response. Ryland pressed closer to her, trapping her body there in the darkness, his hand finding the hem of her dress, circling her ankle with his fingers. He slid his palm up her calf, lingering for a moment as he traced the scars with loving care. His hand caressed her knee, slid all the way up her bare thigh.

Lily cradled his head, drowning in sensation. This was sheer madness. She heard her soft muffled groan as he found the heat of her damp curls. "Ryland," she whispered into his dark hair. "I'm going to go up in flames."

"I want you to, Lily. Burn for me." His fingers encountered the tiny scrap of underwear. His teeth nipped the side of her breast. "I thought you weren't wearing underwear. I'm so disappointed."

The sexy little thong was no hindrance as he pushed his finger into her, testing the depth of her response to him. Her gasp excited him more. The muscles of her fiery sheath clamped tightly, velvet soft, so tempting his body shook with urgency to bury itself in her. She was so beautiful to him. So necessary to him. She had no idea what she meant to him.

Ryland closed his eyes and simply indulged his hunger for her, losing himself in the temptation of her body. He pressed his finger deep into her heat, his mouth hot and insistent on her breast. Her fingers tangled in his hair, holding him to her. The music was swirling around them, the sounds of feet on the stairs, the voices and laughter.

His mouth left her breast to travel up her throat to her chin. "Unzip me, Lily." He breathed the temptation. Whispered it. A sinfully wicked plea.

"Ryland…" It was a soft, breathless protest, even as her hands found the front of his trousers, her fingers sending tongues of fire racing up his hard shaft as she obeyed. "This is insanity. We should go home…" she trailed off, her lungs starving for air. She wanted him so much, right there, just like that, wild and out of control and so hungry for her he couldn't possibly wait.

Ryland was rigid with need, hard and thick and pulsing with hunger. A craving. He caught her leg, wrapped it around his waist even as he forced her back tighter against the wall. "You're burning up for me, honey?" he whispered, "don't say no. They won't find us here." He pushed her gown higher, bunching it around her waist. "Don't leave me like this. I've never needed anything more." Not wanting to take the chance she might deny him, Ryland brought his body against her moist heat. His hands found the tiny strip of red lace and ripped it away, leaving her fully exposed for him. "Want me back, Lily. Want me like this. Maybe it's the wrong place and the wrong time, but want me anyway."

Lily closed her eyes as she felt him, thick and hard, probing against her entrance. He was large, her body tight. It seemed an impossibility there in the tiny room with its peepholes and history. And there was danger…

Ryland stayed perfectly still, waiting. Praying.

Her fingers curled in his hair. "I want you more than anything," she admitted, rubbing enticingly against him.

Slick with heat and moisture, she accepted him, inch by inch. He filled her until she was gasping, her breath coming in little pants of pleasure. She needed him too. Needed him buried deep inside her, a part of her, sharing the same body.

Ryland began to move, deliberately finding a hot, passionate rhythm that matched the sultry music pounding around them. Fast and slow, deep and hard, he never wanted it to end. She was so tight, her body made for his. The soft little sounds coming from her throat were driving him mad. Her nails bit into his back, her breath came in little gasps, and her eyes were cloudy with heat.

He lifted her, so that she was forced to curl both legs around him, to open herself more fully to his possession. He drove deeper, his hands biting into her waist. "Ride me, baby, come on, take all of me." He whispered the temptation, watching her face, the heated color, the pleasure he was giving her.

She moved, her muscles clenching, tightening, sliding up and down, over him, following the driving beat of the music as he had done. Lily forgot where she was. Who she was. There was only the pleasure coursing through her body, the fire washing over her as she threw back her head and indulged herself.

Dancing lights burst behind her eyes and she closed them, moving to the beat, riding his body, every muscle dazzled and alive. She could feel her body winding, tightening, clenching around his. Wanting him. Greedy for him. Demanding him.

Ryland murmured something she didn't catch, his hands tightening on her, biting deep as he thrust fiercely into her. Lily threw back her head, shuddering with pleasure as her body spiraled out of control, wave after wave shaking her. Her hair was a dark cloud around her, teasing her breasts as they jutted brazenly. She felt a scream of acute pleasure welling up and hastily buried her face against his shoulder. His heavy muscles muffled her cries as she allowed one leg to drop back to the floor, needing to hold herself up.

Her body was an inferno, velvet soft, yet gripping him tightly. The friction was nearly unbearable, so much pleasure it was nearly pain. He thrust deep one last time as the music crescendoed, as his body erupted, a hot volcano that nearly took his head off. His legs turned to rubber, his body turned to lead as if she had drained his very strength. He rested her back against the wall, his forehead pressed to hers, struggling to regain his ability to breathe.

They stayed that way, twined together, leaning against the wall for support, the only way to stay upright. Lily attempted to regain her ability to breathe, listening to the next song, a slow, moody number. One leg still curled possessively around his waist, their bodies intimately tight together. She was so aware of his every movement, his every breath, the hand stroking her calf.

Lily was astonished she didn't fall over when Ryland was finally able to move, kissing her neck and slowly straightening up. Her leg somehow managed to unwrap, her foot dropping to the floor, releasing him. He handed her back the little scrap of useless underwear.

Lily stared down at the torn lacy thong in shock then lifted her gaze to Ryland. A slow grin was spreading across his face. Self-satisfied. Male. She couldn't help the slow answering smile curving her mouth.

Ryland studied her. She looked thoroughly loved. She still leaned against the wall, her gown bunched around her waist, her breasts thrusting toward him. Her mouth was swollen from his kisses and he could see his seed trickling down her thigh. "You're undoubtedly the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

Slightly shocked that she felt no embarrassment, Lily casually used the red thong to clean her leg. Ryland caught her hand, took the scrap of lace back, and slowly performed the task. His fingers seemed to linger and caress her sensitized flesh so that little aftershocks began all over again.

"You can't do that," she whispered. His mere touch was producing an ache that would never be satisfied.

"You wouldn't believe what I can do," he said with complete confidence, his fingers dancing inside her, teasing and provoking, urging her body to move against his stroking thumb.

She went over the edge so hard and fast the orgasm took her by surprise. Lily caught at his shoulder for support, her body trembling and aching. "You have to stop or I'm going to scream and bring everyone running."

He kissed her again and again, wishing for more time with her. "I want to spend hours just making love to you, Lily."

She looked around her at the shabby little room. "I can't believe we're in this smutty little room. Worse, I can't believe I want to stay in here with you."

Ryland leaned into her, found her mouth with his, a slow melting. Where they sizzled before, burning hot and fast, now they smoldered. "I love you, Lily Whitney. I really do love you." His hand curved around the nape of her neck, his thumb tipping up her chin so she had to meet the steel in his eyes.

"I know you love my body."

"Damn it, is it so hard to say it? I feel it every time you touch me. When you kiss me. Stop being so damned stubborn. I could use a little help here."

"Two damns," Lily said thoughtfully. She circled his neck with both arms, leaned her full, generous breasts into his chest. Her teeth nibbled on his neck, his jaw. "I guess I'll have to give this some thought if you're going to be so insistent."

He heard the soft teasing note in her voice and the hard knots in his belly began to relax. "I am going to be insistent, Lily. I was thinking we could go home and pick up this conversation in our bed."

"You're very sure of yourself, aren't you?" Her tongue danced in his ear, teased the corner of his mouth.

"Lily, you're playing with fire here." He pulled away from her. "I'm two seconds from taking you all over again and we really might get caught." One of them had to be strong. He tucked her breasts inside her dress, straightening her neck clasp. She didn't help him, but stood staring up at him with her enormous eyes drinking him in. Almost daring him. Ryland pulled her gown down resolutely, tugged until it fell around her gracefully.

Lily's hand brushed the front of him suggestively, dropped lower, rubbed and caressed, branded him hers before tucking him back inside his charcoal slacks.

His entire body clenched, shuddered, and went up in flames at the dancing intimacy of her touch. Lily might not have experience, but she had confidence and she knew he wanted her. "I'm not going to survive this, Lily." He was pleading for mercy.

She took pity on him. The role of seductress was one Lily was finding she loved but real life was intruding and she could see Ryland's rising tension. "I didn't tell you how handsome you look in a suit. Where did you get it on such short notice? And all the others? They must have been wearing suits."

"Arly. He's a very useful man."

Lily smiled. "Isn't he wonderful?"

"I don't know if I'd go that far, honey. When are you going to introduce me to Rosa? I'm getting kind of tired of ducking under your bed and hiding in the closet on the mornings she decides to bring you tea. Although that closet is bigger than the trailer I grew up in." He looked her over carefully, brushed her hair back over her shoulder. "After we get out of here, you need to fill me in on the captain and the general. You took quite a chance talking with him. It took the combined efforts of all of us to keep Higgens and the others away from the two of you."

"I think the captain owes you a big thank-you. That woman was going to take him home and show him a good time."

"It was in her mind to find a handsome serviceman husband," Ryland said. "She was dressed for seduction and he was obviously determined to seduce."

"Don't be glaring at me," Lily said, laughing. "I didn't want anything to do with that man."

Ryland ran his finger down her spine, all the way to the curve of her bottom. "He was touching you like he owned you."

"Like he wanted to own me." Lily reached for his hand. "He gave a thought or two to the money. That's what he wanted, not me. And it was just one of those fleeting thoughts. He was ordered to stick close to me and I'm willing to bet tomorrow morning he'll have a lot of explaining to do."

"He won't care," Ryland said with confidence. "He'll think she was worth it."

"How are we going to get you out of here?" Lily tried not to feel anxious. Ryland exuded tremendous confidence. "Have the other men gone? Is anyone watching Higgens?"

"They'll fall back, don't worry about them." Ryland tugged at her, drawing her through the tiny room toward the closet. "You're coming with me, Lily. I'm not leaving without you. The men will expect you to get clear with me. You risked your life for us, to get information to help us, we're not about to leave you here unprotected. They all know I'd never leave you here alone. That's not up for discussion, by the way, if you're thinking of arguing with me."

Lily rubbed her chin along his shoulder. "I'm tired and my leg is going to decide to give out on me after all that dancing. I've got so much to tell you." She didn't want him thinking it was his idea for her to leave. Of course she was going to leave immediately. Her bruises were the perfect excuse. Later she would tell Phillip Thornton her head had been throbbing and she had slipped out to get home and rest.

I can't hold them off any longer. Higgens is sending men in every direction looking for Lily. Take her out by the back stairs and I'll cover for you. The warning from Nicolas was so strong even Lily caught the urgency in his voice.

Ryland reacted instantly, catching Lily's hand, springing toward the closet door. He went through it first, dragging her up the stairs and around the corner until they were pressed against the wall under the spiral staircase. The crowd was close, breaking off into small groups seeking elusive privacy to talk business even as they watched the dancers. Ryland relied on his instincts, threading through the people, using the crowd as cover. He was in a dark suit and could merge with the shadows and blend, but Lily was in dazzling red, sexy and alluring, her dark cloud of hair spilling around her, so she drew the eye. If he gave up his coat his white shirt would be a neon sign.

Lily realized she was endangering Ryland. "Go without me, I'll catch up. John is waiting with the limo." She tried to untangle her fingers from his, but he shackled her wrist and yanked her to his side.

One strong arm curved around her waist. There was steel in him, she discovered. Another side to the passionate lover who could be so tender and loving. "Just do as I say and stay quiet. We aren't separating, Lily, so don't waste time arguing."

She glanced up at the intense concentration on his face. The silver eyes moved restlessly, alertly, searching through the throngs of people unerringly to find the stern-looking men working their way across the ballroom floor and along the walls and darker corners.

Ryland knew the soldiers were looking for Lily and her sexy red dress. He would have spotted her immediately. He urged her down the long hall, hugging the wall, shielding her smaller body with his larger one to minimize the risk of her being seen. They were looking for a woman, not for Ryland Miller. The cloakroom was beside the elevator. Ryland took the number from Lily and strolled up to the attendant, presenting the card. Lily's cloak was floor length and hooded, a long drape of black velvet. Gratefully he enfolded her in its warmth.

On your right. I'm blurring your image a bit.

Ryland drew Lily into his arms, pressing her back into the multitude of potted plants, an ardent lover, his back to their right, his entire body protecting her from prying eyes. He murmured softly, deliberately, amusement in his voice as if they were sharing some secret, intimate joke. All the while she felt the flow of energy growing around them until it was nearly crackling in the air. Together the two men urged the soldier dressed in the dark suit to look the other way, to catch a glimpse of a red gown and hurry after the woman as she rounded a corner.

Ryland immediately rushed Lily toward the stairs, a man so eager to be alone with his lover he was impatient to get her out of the crowd. There was a brief moment when they had no choice but to walk in the lighted hallway. He could only hope the cape was long enough to cover the red hem of her gown as Lily walked quickly.

"Take off your shoes," he ordered as they made the comparative safety of the stairwell. "I don't want your high heels to slow us down if we have to run."

Lily held his arm with one hand and removed the thin-strapped shoes with the other. "I happen to like these shoes," she said. "I don't want them lost."

"Just like a woman, worried about shoes at a time like this." Ryland rolled his eyes as he tugged on her hand. "They're going to be waiting for us on one of the floors below, Lily. They shouldn't be swarming the way they are."

They raced down two flights of stairs. "Why would they unless they knew you were here? Could they have spotted you or one of the men inside earlier?"

"I doubt it." They went down two more flights.

Lily was definitely limping now. She tried to let go of his hand, knowing she was holding him back. She knew from long experience, her muscles would begin to spasm and eventually she would be dragging her leg. "You're the one in danger, Ryland, not me. What are they going to do here to me in front of all these people? I'll go back to the ballroom and join a group. Have Arly send John in for me."

"Keep moving, Lily," Ryland snapped, his expression grim. "This isn't a democracy." His fingers shackled her wrist, pulled her down another flight of stairs.

"My leg, Ryland," she began.

Ryland's palm covered her mouth. She felt his sudden stillness. His arms were around her, holding her to him, moving her backward on the third-floor landing above the stairs. He peered down, his mouth pressed against her ear. "The stair light is gone below us. Someone's there waiting. I can feel them."

She couldn't feel anything but the terrible pain as her calf muscles knotted and her lungs burned from running down several flights of stairs. Her heart was beginning to pound. What could have tipped Colonel Higgens off to Ryland's presence in the building? Or was he really looking for her because she had spent too much time with General Ranier? Maybe the general was so angry he inadvertently hinted at the truth to Higgens.

The thought frightened her. Ranier would be in danger, maybe even Delia, his wife. If Higgens and Thornton had been willing to chance committing murder already four times, they weren't going to stop because their next victim was a general.

Ryland's lips moved, his voice so low she hardly caught the words. "It's Cowlings. His telepathic ability is almost nil, but he feels the surges of energy. We're going down the stairs. Stay close to the wall and keep the cloak around you."

She nodded to indicate she understood. Ryland's arms slipped off of her, taking most of the warmth with them. Lily shrank back against the railing as he began the descent into the dark region below them. He made no sound as he stalked down the stairs like the predator he was. Lily touched his back for reassurance. She could feel the ripple of his muscles as he crept down the stairs. She tried to emulate his silence, placing her feet carefully and doing her best to control her breathing. Even so it sounded overloud in the quiet of the stairwell.

A door opened briefly far above them and loud laughter spilled out. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted down. Ryland froze, remained unmoving, holding up his hand to indicate to her to freeze in place. They stayed motionless until the door slammed shut on the voices, leaving behind silence. His hand touched hers. Their fingers tangled and he squeezed hers in reassurance.

Lily tried to hold her breath during the descent to the second-story landing. The closer they got to the second floor, the harder her heart pounded, until she was afraid it would burst out of her chest. The surge of adrenaline caused her body to tremble violently. Ryland was as steady as a rock. She couldn't detect that his heart rate had risen at all and her thumb was rubbing nervously back and forth over the pulse in his wrist. Lily blinked. Ryland's wrist slid away from her.

Suddenly he was gone and she was alone, flattened against the wall on the fourth stair from the landing, trembling alone in the dark. There was no sound at all. Lily sought inside herself for a calming moment, forcing air through her lungs until she had slowed her heart and brought her breathing back under control. She waited, not giving in to the impulse to reach telepathically for Ryland. If Cowlings were anywhere close, he would feel the sudden surge of energy.

The urge to move was sudden and immediate. A whispering sounded in her head but she couldn't quite make out the words. Lily stayed still, hugging the wall, not trusting a connection that wasn't strong and intimate as the one she always had with Ryland. Nicolas was extremely strong and she knew him. She felt he would have managed to send her a clear message. She waited, wrapped in her velvet cloak. Tense. Afraid. Holding her ground.

It seemed an hour. Time slowed down. Nearly stopped. Lily hated the silence, when it was usually her refuge. There was a whisper of movement, felt more than heard. Cloth brushing against the wall very close to her. Lily tried to make herself smaller, held her breath, waiting. She stared directly toward the sound. Little by little she began to make out the stealthy shadow looming large, stalking her there in the dark.

Everything in her screamed to break and run, but she forced a stillness. Trusting him. Trusting Ryland. She could feel him close to her, Breathing with her. For her. Giving her the strength to wait for the threat to reach out to her.

Something heavy dropped from above, landed on the stalker's back, hooking the neck, jerking hard, dropping both bodies to the landing. She could hear the sickening thud of fist against flesh.

Go now! The voice was sharp and clear in Lily's head. Nicolas, not Ryland.

She hesitated one heartbeat then did as ordered, slipping past the two struggling, viciously fighting men. She started down the flight of stairs, glanced back. The two men were on their feet now. One shadow broke and ran toward her, leaping, taking flight, determined to get his hands on her.

Lily tried to run, pushing off with her bad leg. Her muscles seized. The leg gave out, and she found herself sitting down hard in the middle of the staircase. It was the only thing that saved her. The man would have hit her squarely in the back had she not fallen. As it was, he kicked her shoulder as his body overshot hers. Lily nearly tumbled down the stairs with the force of the impact. He landed several steps below her, spun around, and scrambled toward her. She could see his eyes, the sheen of triumph. His hands reached out, grabbed her ankle, and yanked.

Lily slid down the stairs even as Ryland loomed up, a dark solid menace. His kick caught Cowlings squarely in the head. The man fell backward away from Lily.

Ryland caught her, dragged her to him, his hands running over her body to check that she was uninjured. "Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?"

Her hand slid down his chest, came away sticky and wet. "Ryland?"

"It's nothing, Lily, he had a knife in his hand. It's a graze, nothing more. Can you walk?"

"I don't know. It's like that, sometimes I work fine and then it just gives out completely when the muscle's too stressed." She wanted to pull his shirt up to examine his chest, but he was dragging her up, his arm around her waist, urging her down the last flight of stairs to the entrance to the first floor.

Ryland pushed open the door, glanced around, and hurried her toward a side door. Behind you. The warning came as Cowlings rushed out of the stairwell. Ryland ducked into an alcove, pushing Lily away from him while swinging around to face Cowlings. The two men circled warily.

"I'm going to kill you, Miller," Cowlings snarled, wiping blood from his shattered nose. His face appeared much like pulp. Even his eyes were swelling.

"You're welcome to try," Ryland answered softly.

Lily concentrated on the picture on the wall to Ryland's right and it began to tremble violently. It suddenly jumped free and flew toward Russell Cowlings. It rocked and spun, dipping low, picking up speed as it rose sharply. Cowlings ducked and dodged, desperately trying to avoid the attacking picture.

Ryland lunged at him, feigning an attack, distracting him. Cowlings stumbled backward, turning his attention to his human opponent. The picture slammed down hard over the top of his head, breaking through canvas, glass, and frame and settling around his neck. Cowlings looked more stunned than hurt.

"Go, Lily." Ryland had no choice. If he left their enemy alive, Lily would be in danger, as would all of his men. He couldn't bear for her to be a witness.

She obeyed, limping heavily as she went. Her leg was throbbing so badly it was making her feel sick. Nearly useless, she was dragging herself toward the exit. The heavy drape along the alcove wall suddenly leapt to life; it reached out and whipped around her, wrapping her up in coils of material. The drape wound so tightly it threatened to cut off her air. Lily was unable to see anything or to fight the heavy folds. Her arms were locked to her sides.

Her leg gave out and she fell, trapped in the ever-tightening coils, suddenly in danger of suffocation. Ryland! Panic-stricken, she gasped his name in her mind.

She knew he was in a fight for his life. For all their lives. She was even ashamed that she had pleaded for his help, risking distracting him, but she couldn't help herself. Lily had never felt so panicked in all her life.

Be calm. That was Nicolas. It was amazing that she could hear him when she was screaming so loudly in her head.

She breath was shallow and she closed her eyes and began to use her brain. She had tremendous power, tremendous control. Years of practicing had honed her skills. Russell Cowlings was preoccupied with fighting and he was not nearly as strong as she was. Lily began to fight for control of the heavy drapes. The battle didn't last long. Cowlings had no stamina for a prolonged mental fight nor did he have the necessary skills built up to divide his attention.

Ryland went in low and mean, needing a quick finish. Nicolas was close but he was controlling security cameras and steering any late-nighters away from the alcove. Cowlings was a vicious fighter and quick. He had always been one of the best in hand-to-hand combat and was smart enough to keep out of reach, snapping a series of hard kicks to force Ryland to stay away from him.

Ryland fought down the urge to move too quickly, taking his time, blocking the kicks and pushing slowly inside. He was the stronger physically and once he got his hands on Cowlings it would be over. Ryland caught sight of the two-foot-high ashtray just inside the alcove. The round cylinder was made of metal. Even as he kept up his slow pursuit of Cowlings, he concentrated on the cylinder, forcing the canister to tip over slowly, floating lightly to the thickly carpeted floor to keep from making noise.

Blocking several vicious kicks, he sent the cylinder rolling between Cowling's legs, causing him to stumble back. Instantly Ryland exploded into action, driving in fast with the edge of his hand to Cowling's throat, crushing everything in it's path as it drove through. It sickened him, watching the man fall. Watching him struggle to breathe, an impossible task. Ryland tried to feel nothing. Tried to go dead inside.

He whirled around to find Lily's enormous eyes staring at him in horror. She scrambled out from under the heavy draperies, trying to crawl to Cowlings with the vague idea of helping him.

Get clear! Get clear! There are too many coming down and I can't hold them off.

Ryland caught her around her waist, lifted her bodily into his arms, and sprinted for the door. He burst into the night, running for the corner where he knew Arly waited in the car.

"I have to go with John. If the limousine is still parked and waiting for me, Higgens is going to know I didn't leave immediately," Lily protested.

Ryland didn't slow down, didn't glance at Nicolas as he emerged from another door and paced alongside of him. They separated at the car, diving from either side into the backseat. Ryland dumped Lily onto the floor.

"Go, Arly, go now." Ryland's voice was harsh. He told Lily, "Call John on the cell phone and tell him to get the hell out of there."

Lily glanced up at Ryland's grim face and obeyed him. John protested, wanted to know what was going on, but the urgency in her voice finally convinced him. He promised to leave for home immediately.

"Thanks for hanging back and covering us," Ryland said.

Nicolas shrugged. "Kaden took the children home. They were happy to play for a while. I wanted a little more excitement so I thought I'd just hang around." He leaned down to examine Lily's face. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"Ryland is. Cowlings had a knife," she said.

Arly twisted his head around to stare. "What the hell happened?"

"Just drive," Ryland snapped. "It's a scratch, no more," he added in protest as Lily came up on her knees and Nicolas lifted his shirt to look him over.

"You're damned lucky, Captain," Nicolas said. "You should have broken his neck when you had him the first time. You knew he had to be taken out. You gave him a shot at you deliberately."

Ryland didn't answer, staring out the window, his fixed gaze turbulent.

"She could have been killed, Rye. He was going after her to shake you up."

"Damn it, Nico, I know that. Don't you think I know that?" Ryland swung his head around to glare at Nicolas.

Nicolas shrugged his broad shoulders with studied casualness. "You should have killed him the first time you laid your hands on him back at the fence when we escaped."

Ryland leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes, bile rising. He fought it down, his fingers finding and tunneling in the thick silky strands of Lily's hair. He closed his fist and held her that way. Unknowing. Just needing her presence.