Shadow game (Chapter Eleven)
His teeth nibbled on the nape of her neck. "I don't know, but I'm willing to try if you are." It was sheer joy to wake up with Lily in his arms. "I want this for the rest of my life." He'd had no intention of saying it out loud, but it slipped out anyway.
Lily turned in his arms, her soft breasts brushing his body intimately. Her blue gaze drifted over his face until he felt her stirring inside his body, whisper soft, like butterfly wings. "I do too, Ryland, but I don't honestly know whether or not what we feel is real or contrived by my father. Could he have done something to enhance what we feel? What if we find later he did?"
"Do you think it's possible?"
She frowned in thought. "I honestly don't know. I can't imagine how, but we react so violently to one another. I can't keep my hands off you. I really can't. I'm not like that, Ryland. I know myself very well, and I just never thought about sex the way I do now."
"Suppose we find out he did, Lily?" His thumb strummed her nipple just so he could feel her shiver in reaction. He inhaled the fragrance of her hair. "What difference would it make? He may have found a way to manipulate sexual feelings, although I doubt it, but it would be impossible for him to force someone's emotions. If I couldn't have your body, Lily, I would still want you."
"Why? What do you think is so special about me that you would want to spend the rest of your life with me?" Her voice was very low.
"Your courage, your loyalty," he answered instantly. "You think I can't see those things in you? I'm trained to read people. You defend your father even with all the things you've learned about him. I see the way you touch Jeff, a virtual stranger, yet with gentleness and caring. I see the love you have for your family. You're so willing to help us when you didn't have to open your home to us. Hell, Lily, you could have turned your back on us, you probably should have. You don't think I can see you running yourself into the ground, so exhausted you want to crawl into a hole, but you keep going for others, to make it right for others. Who wouldn't fall in love with a woman like that?"
She shook her head. "I'm not like that. I'm just me, Ryland."
He kissed the frown on her mouth. "You're exactly like that. Little things can come in time, but the important things I already know. You have a great sense of humor. And you can carry on an intelligent conversation." He grinned at her. "I might not know what you're saying part of the time, but it sounds good."
There was a silence while she studied his expression. How could she be uncertain of him? He'd taken his heart right out of his body and gift-wrapped it for her. His gut churned in an agony of sudden fear. "Would finding out your father did something to us make a difference to you, Lily? Is that what you're trying to say to me?"
"Did you really look at me last night, Ryland? It was dark in here. Did you really look at my body, because I'm not beautiful at all like you think I am." Lily sat up, determination plain on her face. "There's a lot of things wrong with me. Flaws. You must have noticed them."
Ryland sat up too, rubbing his mouth to hide amusement he couldn't push away. Lily was a woman, all right. Last night she had come apart in his arms, unashamedly riding him, showing off her body, but now, in the light of day, she was resolutely going to tell him about her "flaws." "Flaws, plural?" He rubbed his chin this time, still carefully covering his mouth. "You have more than one? I did notice your tendency to be a little haughty."
The full power of Lily's blue eyes turned on him. Glaring. "I am never haughty."
"Sure you are. You have that princess-in-the-castle look you give the mere peasants when we get out of line," he said cheerfully. "I noticed it, but it's such a minor flaw I can live with it."
"My leg, you imbecile. I was talking about my leg." She thrust it out for him to see. Scars marred her calf, which was sunken in and shiny where part of the muscle was obviously missing. "It's ugly. And I limp when I'm tired. Well, I limp most of the time but I really limp when I'm tired." She was watching his face closely for signs of repugnance.
Ryland leaned closer to inspect her calf. He took her leg in both hands, ran his fingers in a long caress from ankle to thigh. She jerked, retreating, but he held her firmly, bending to kiss the worst of the scars. His tongue traced the strange pattern. "This is not a flaw, Lily. This is life. How the hell do you manage to get your skin so soft?"
She tried glaring and even considered her so-called haughty look but a smile broke through all the same. His voice was sincere and his gaze rock steady. "I think you're still thinking about sex, Ryland. We're supposed to be talking seriously." She was reluctant to pull her leg away from his caressing fingers. There was a soothing quality to his touch. He made her feel beautiful even when she knew she wasn't.
"And I'm not exactly a model. I'm fat in places and skinny in others."
His eyebrow shot up. "Fat?" His gaze was hot as it ran possessively over her body.
Lily crossed her arms over her generous breasts. "You know very well my hips are enormous and so is my top. I look like I'm tipping over. And my legs are skinny so I look like a chicken."
"I see I'll have to do an inspection," he replied good-naturedly. "Here, let me take a look."
Lily slid away from him, dragging his shirt to her to cover her body. She gave him her coolest look, but her eyes were dancing. "You are impossible. I have to check on Jeff Hollister."
He grinned at her as she stood up, backing away from him. "I don't know, honey. I like the way you look but I have a jealous streak. I don't think my heart could take you walking around in front of my men covered only by my shirt."
She stuck her nose in the air. "I'm taking a shower and getting dressed first." She tried to sound snippy, nearly ruined her perfect performance by laughing, but she managed to control herself.
Ryland padded after her completely naked. Lily didn't hear him behind her and nearly jumped out of her skin when his body crowded against hers in the glass shower. "We weren't finished conversing, were we?" he asked innocently.
She did look down her nose at him, every bit as cool and haughty as he'd called her. "We are more than finished. Go away."
Ryland laughed and rushed her, scooping her up and turning on the water so it cascaded over both of them. His mouth was on hers, stopping protests before she could start them. Heat flared instantly between them, hunger, sharp and elemental.
"We can't," Lily gasped, her arms sliding around his neck to cradle his head as he lapped the water from her breasts. He made her legs weak, her body soft and pliant, aching with need instantly.
"We have to," he countered and closed his mouth over the temptation of her breast. "I want you so much I can't stand it."
"Well, I think I'm going to fall down if you keep doing that."
"You're as hot as I am." His hands were stroking and caressing, already exploring possibilities. "Put your arms around my neck. I'm going to lift you up and you just wrap your legs around my waist."
"I'm too heavy," she protested, but she obeyed him because he was so tempting she couldn't resist him. She would never be able to resist him.
Lily cried out as she settled over him, forgetting every protest, wanting nothing but to have him fill her. To be with her always.
Neither had any idea of time passage, finding pleasure in being together, rapture in making love. They washed one another, talked softly, laughed often.
As he turned off the shower and tossed Lily a towel, he caught her frowning. "You're not really worried about some other nonexistent flaw you have that you think I should know about," he asked as he ran a towel over his body.
Lily tried not to stare at his body in utter fascination but his muscles really did ripple beneath his skin. "Do you realize I don't even know what kind of music you like?"
Ryland grinned and snapped the towel at her before padding across the floor completely naked without the least bit of modesty. "Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters. I'm pointing out we don't know very much about one another." Why in the world were her eyes glued to his butt? No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't make herself look away. And he was laughing at her.
"I love all kinds of music. My mother listened to everything and insisted I listen too. She also made me take dance lessons." He made a face as he pulled his shirt over his head.
Lily had to laugh at his expression. She could imagine him as a young boy with his curly hair tousled and unruly, spilling into his face while he scowled at his mother in protest. "I took dance lessons," she pointed out. "Private ones, here at the house, in the ballroom on the first floor. I had all kinds of instructors. It was fun."
"When you're ten and a boy, you think it's the end of the world. I had to defend myself and beat up every boy in the neighborhood for two years before they left me alone." He grinned at her as he dragged on his jeans. "Of course, by the time I was in high school, I discovered knowing how to dance was a good thing because girls like dancing and I was very popular. My friends quit sneering pretty fast."
She could imagine him popular with the girls. He looked a rogue with his black curls and his slashing eyes. "Your mother sounds so interesting."
"She especially liked Latin dancing. She would laugh and her eyes would sparkle. I really didn't mind nearly as much as I wanted her to think. I loved watching her dance, she always had so much fun. We didn't have the money for the right clothes or the right shoes, but she always found a way to get us lessons." He looked at Lily. "Did your father dance?"
"Dad?" Lily burst out laughing. "Heavens no. He wouldn't have ever thought of dancing. Rosa was the one who insisted I learn to dance and she got her way because Arly had insisted I learn martial arts and Dad approved of that. She used the well-rounded-education approach. Instructors of just about everything were brought here to the house. I had art teachers and music teachers and voice teachers. I learned to shoot a gun, use a bow and arrow, even a crossbow."
Ryland was fascinated with her lacy scrap of underwear, a sheer red thong she donned not having the least idea that his body was growing hard just watching her.
"Arly danced with me. Arly and John were very much like fathers or uncles. They had nearly as much say as I was growing up as my father, maybe more. Dad was absentminded about parenting. He didn't remember I existed for days at a time if he was working on something."
"You didn't mind that?" Her voice was so matter-of-fact it astonished him. His mother had been interested in every aspect of his life. He couldn't remember a subject they hadn't talked about.
"That was just Dad. You had to know him. He wasn't all that interested in people. Not even me." She shrugged as she drew on a pair of dove gray trousers that molded to her hips. There wasn't a single line to mar the way the material lovingly hugged her bottom. "He was good to me, Ryland, and I felt loved, but he didn't share time with me unless it was something to do with work. He had exercises he insisted I do on a daily basis to strengthen the barriers in my mind. I intend to teach them to your men. I live in a protected environment, but I'm able to function out in the world when I have to. I'm hoping to at least provide that for you and the others."
She had slipped on a silk blouse over a wispy lace bra. Ryland reached over to button the tiny pearl buttons because he had to touch her. His knuckles brushed her breasts and her nipples tightened immediately in response. Her vivid gaze met his and they stared at one another in helpless hunger.
Holding the edges of her blouse together, he bent his head slowly to hers and took possession of her mouth. He wanted to put his mouth right over that silk and lace and suckle her breast, nip and tease and see her eyes cloud with passion and her skin flush just for him, but he contented himself with thoroughly kissing her instead.
"Ryland." Her voice was shaky. "Is this normal?"
"I've never felt this way about another woman. How the hell would I know if it's normal or not?" He kissed her eyelids, the corners of her mouth. "Whatever it is, it seems normal for us and that's good enough for me." Resolutely he finished buttoning her blouse, bending his head for just one moment to plant a kiss on the tip of her breast, nuzzling her through the silk.
Lily had the mad desire to grab the nape of his neck and force him to her aching breasts, just hold him there, while his tongue and teeth and the heat of his mouth worked their magic on her. Her body was sore, but deliciously so, reminding her continuously of his possession.
"Lily." He said her name and she blinked up at him, coming out of her daydream, realizing her hands were tracing the definition of his muscles, sliding over his body as if it belonged to her. "Don't we have work to do?"
"Try not to be so distracting," she ordered. "I have an idea that might help Hollister. Being here, in this house, should provide relief for all of you. The walls are extra thick and each individual room is soundproof." She looked at him soberly. "That's the other flaw, you know, Ryland. I'll never be normal. I need this house in order to survive. Everything here is designed to keep my world protected. The amount of land surrounding the house. The day staff is in and out in a matter of a couple of hours and I never come into contact with them."
Ryland caught her face in his hands. "I don't care what you need to exist, Lily, as long as you do. That's all that matters to me. We're all counting on you to teach us how to live in the world again. You have a job, you're a contributing citizen. We're hoping you can do that for us. Allow us to live again."
She looked at him, completely unaware her heart was in her eyes. "I hope so, too, Ryland."
Lily had expected rejection. It made him crazy to think that she wouldn't know her worth. He could feel her pain simmering just below the surface and his heart ached for her. She had just lost her father and she was discovering more about him and about her life than she could handle all at once. And he had brought her even more trouble, allowing her to risk everything by hiding fugitives in her home.
He swept a hand through his hair, turning away from her. "I'm sorry, Lily, I had nowhere else to bring them." He sat heavily on the bed, reaching for his shoes.
Lily dropped her hand onto his head, her fingers tunneling in his damp hair, connecting them. "Of course they have to be here. I'm going to lay out exercises that must be done several times a day. I have all the recordings of the earlier work done with the girls, with me. I think that's a large part of the problem. They were all so eager to use you in the field, they didn't prepare you properly for the assault on your brain. They opened the floodgates and didn't give you even the flimsiest of barriers to protect you. You all relied on your anchors. And once you were separated only the anchors could exist without continual pain."
He was listening to the tone of her voice. She had switched on him again, almost musing aloud rather than conversing. Her mind was turning over the problem, examining it from every angle and coming up with solutions at a rapid rate. It made him smile. His Lily. He savored that. His. She belonged to him in every way.
"Depriving you of your anchors set all of you up for continual trips to the hospital. I have to get in there and look over the records, see if the same people were working each time."
"Wait now, Lily." She was walking briskly out of her room toward the kitchenette that seemed to accompany every wing of the house. Ryland followed in her wake, his heart in his throat. "You damn well aren't going back to that place."
She looked at him with cool eyes. "Of course I am. I work there. I own stock in the company. The research I've been working on for the last four years could save lives." She stalked across the marble tiles to the gleaming refrigerator. "Whoever murdered my father is at Donovans and I'm going to find them." There was no challenge, no defiance, only a calm, quiet statement. She handed him a glass of milk, drank one herself.
There was no point in arguing with her when she was in her present mood. Ryland quirked an eyebrow at her. "This is it?" He stared at the white liquid. "No coffee? No breakfast? I give you a night of unbelievable sex and you give me a glass of milk?"
Lily smirked at him. "Get it straight, Miller. I gave you an unbelievable night of sex and I don't cook. Not ever."
"Oh, I see how it is. The incredibly intelligent woman doesn't know how to cook. Admit it, Lily."
Lily rinsed her glass in the sink. "I was given gourmet cooking lessons by one of the top chefs in the country." She waved her hand at the cupboards. "Feel free to fix yourself something. Rosa keeps it stocked with things in hopes I'll eat more."
"I'm intrigued. You really can cook?"
Lily found the mosaic tile on the counter interesting. "I didn't say that, exactly. Only that I had the lessons. The man may as well have been speaking Greek." She grinned at him. "Well, not Greek, I can speak Greek, but I couldn't understand a word the man said. It's an art form and I have no creative talents whatsoever."
He put his arm around her, pulled her beneath his shoulder. "Fortunately I'm a great cook." He kissed her temple, a mere brush of his lips but he felt the answering tremor in her and it pleased him. "I think you have the potential to be very creative," he whispered suggestively. "You just chose the wrong art form."
Lily found herself blushing. Even his tone of voice slipped under her skin and heated her blood. She suddenly found she was a lot more creative than she had ever imagined. She shook her head firmly. "Stop trying to tempt me. I have work to do with Hollister and the others."
His hand slipped from her shoulder, trailed down the neck opening of her silk blouse to skim along her bare flesh. Lily sucked in her breath against the trail of flames he left behind on her skin. "Am I tempting you, Lily? You always look so cool. I always have a mad desire to melt the ice princess."
She never felt cool around him. She didn't reply, forcing her mind to consider the facts. "Ryland, maybe we're looking at this the wrong way. Let's turn it around. Let's say the experiment had a high degree of success. There were several deaths and the men were suffering seizures and brain bleeds."
"I'd say that wasn't a high degree of success." He kept pace with her, a scowl on his face. "Don't go scientific on me. These men are human beings with families. They're good men. We're not just writing them off as lab rats."
Lily sighed. "You're too close, Ryland. You have to learn how to step back. They're expecting that reaction. It's human nature. A few deaths, call it off. The results aren't worth the price."
"Damn it, Lily." He could feel his temper rising. His palms itched to shake her. Her tone was impersonal, a computer calculating. "A few deaths aren't worth the price."
"Of course they aren't, Ryland. Put emotion aside for just a few minutes and consider other possibilities. You said yourself that the first year everything went fairly smoothly. You were used in training missions and your team performed well."
"There were problems," he said, reaching past her to open the door to Jeff Hollister's room.
Lily could see the gathered men, still holding vigil over then-fallen companion. It wrenched at her heartstrings the way they guarded him. Big, tough men, capable of being lethal should the occasion call for it, but talking soothing nonsense to a friend when he was down and sitting up when they had comfortable beds, just to see to his needs.
"Any change?" she asked Tucker Addison. In the light of day, the man looked like a linebacker to her. She couldn't imagine him going unnoticed in an enemy camp, but his hands, as they tucked the blanket closer around Jeff Hollister, were gentle.
"No, ma'am. Last night, on and off for about ten minutes he seemed restless, but then he settled back down again."
Lily made a second examination of Jeff Hollister, paying particular attention to his skull. "Feel this, Ryland, he definitely has evidence of surgical scarring."
"Well, he did have surgery. He was rushed to the hospital to relieve swelling about three months ago," Ryland said. "They drilled a hole in his head."
Lily's gaze was cool and assessing. "I doubt they were relieving pressure in his brain; more than likely that's when the electrodes were planted." She stood for a moment looking at Ryland. "I know you did it yesterday, Ryland, but if no one minds, I'd like to examine all of the men. I want to be absolutely certain."
Gator leapt up. "Raoul Fontenot volunteering, ma'am." He grinned at her engagingly. "We could use my room, a couple of doors down and to the left."
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary," Lily answered, running her fingers over his skull while several of the men snickered. "You're fine."
Ryland took the opportunity to smack Gator on the head. "Your only problem is your skull's too thick."
One by one, Lily examined the rest of the men. Only Jeff Hollister showed signs of surgery. "Have any of the rest of you had seizures?"
"I did, ma'am," Sam Johnson, the only other African American besides Tucker Addison in the room, admitted. He was a big man, light on his feet, a man renowned for his hand-to-hand combat. Few could surpass him in a physical fight. He had been an instructor in the Special Forces team. "I was out in the field and had a small seizure during a mission. The video and voice feed on my camera and my partner's camera weren't working that day so there was no data on it. That's why it didn't show up in a report."
Ryland spun around. "You never verbally reported it?"
"No, sir," Sam said, glancing into the deepest corner where Nicolas sat so silently. "We talked it over and decided we'd better not. The men who went to the hospital all ended up dead within a few weeks. If it happened again, I was going to report it."
"But it never happened again," Lily finished for him. "Do you recall whether or not you had suffered a migraine prior to the seizure, maybe a day or so before it?"
"I had a hell of a migraine afterward, ma'am. I thought my head was going to explode, but I didn't dare go to the hospital so I rode it out with a little help from my partner. He knew some mumbo jumbo, cures from the old ones, and damn if they didn't work too."
Lily knew immediately the partner who knew "mumbo jumbo" was Nicolas. He apparently had an extensive knowledge of healing plants. She glanced at the man but he was staring straight ahead as if he didn't hear a single word.
"What about before that?"
"We'd trained for a couple of days and I was separated from Nicolas. He's an anchor, and I couldn't block out all the garbage coming at me. My brain felt like it was on fire. I started vomiting that night and couldn't see so I asked for medication."
"Who separated you from your anchor?" Lily asked.
"Orders came down," Sam said. He looked to Nicolas. "From Captain Miller."
Ryland shook his head. "I never have given an order separating anchors from the men assigned to them. It would defeat the entire mission." His gaze found Nicolas. "You thought it was me."
"I wasn't certain, Rye, and I wasn't going to take chances with his life. I watched you and waited. If it had been you…" Nicolas shrugged his shoulders casually.
Lily shivered as the flat, cold eyes moved over Ryland. Nicolas didn't have to voice a threat, it was there in his eyes, in his casual shrug.
"Russell Cowlings delivered the order," Sam admitted. "There was no reason to think you hadn't given it."
"The snake," Gator said. "He attacked us and tried to kill the captain."
"If I'm getting this right, Gator," Tucker said, "Russ did more than that. He set Sam up to die. Isn't that what you think, ma'am?"
"I think he did, yes. I think Sam had a violent headache after being separated from his anchor and when he asked for medication, he was given something that triggered a seizure. I don't think the seizures are caused by the enhancing process, or if they are, it's a rare side effect. And I don't believe the brain bleeds are caused by severe seizures. I believe the men you lost to those complications were at some time taken to the hospital and, under the pretense of relieving swelling, I think the men underwent surgery and electrodes were planted in specific parts of the brain. Eventually the men were subjected to magnetic fields of extremely high frequency. The heat generated tissue damage and caused hemorrhage.''
"How could they get away with something like that?" Ryland demanded.
"They performed the autopsies, didn't they? They determined the cause of death. What better way to sabotage a project than to pick off members of the unit one by one and make it look as if they were dying from complications or side effects?"
Tucker swore aloud, turned away from her to stomp across the room in frustration and anger. He was a big man, very muscular, and he gave off the impression of immense power and raw strength. "What the hell do they have to gain?" he asked. "I don't understand, what do they have to gain?"
Ryland sighed and raked his hand through his hair. "Money, Tucker. A fortune. What we can do is worth a fortune to any foreign government. Even terrorist organizations would be willing to pay for the information. We can whisper and have guards look the other way. We can disrupt security systems. The possibilities are endless. They convinced us to be afraid of strengthening and using what we have in order to slow us down."
"Let's be careful here. I'm not saying I'm right," Lily cautioned. "Peter Whitney was my father and I loved him very much. I would prefer to think he conducted an experiment in good faith and that he went forward with it until he became aware of the deliberate sabotage. I could be completely wrong."
"So what do we do for Jeff?" Ian McGillicuddy asked.
"First we have to wake him up and then he has to be taken to a surgeon. I know someone who will help us." Lily looked at Ryland. "I believe Hollister is a dreamwalker. I think he took medication of some kind…"
Ian shook his head. "Ryland said it wasn't safe. He wouldn't go against orders."
"But this pill was probably given to him much earlier, when he was in the hospital, so he believed it to be safe. He didn't consider it disregarding an order-he didn't touch the one given to him that night."
"How do you think we can wake him without harming him?" Nicolas asked. His voice was very low, but it carried through the room and silenced the whispered conversations between the men. "I tried to wake him the old way but he was resistant."
Lily was all too aware of the sudden silence in the room. All of the men stared at her expectantly. She let out her breath slowly. "I think we have to go into his dream and bring him out. And I think we can expect trouble."
Ryland moved closer to the bed to study Jeff Hollister's pale face. "What do you mean, trouble?"
Lily was watching Nicolas. His expression never changed. He remained still, but his black eyes were fixed intently on her face.
"Lily"-Ryland was insistent-"what are you thinking?"
"She's thinking Jeff Hollister is a trap." Nicolas answered in his quiet, even voice. "And I think she's right. I feel it. When I try to connect with him, I feel his spirit warning me away."
Ian looked from Lily to Nicolas and then to Ryland. "I'm not certain what you're talking about. How could Jeff be used as a trap?"
Lily patted Jeff's shoulder as he lay sleeping so peacefully. "If I'm correct, he took a pain pill he received from an earlier hospital stay. I think it knocked him out long enough for someone to go into his cage and create a magnetic field of such high frequency the electrodes reacted. My belief is that it was an attempt on his life. The electrical pulses were too strong and caused a brain bleed. Hollister hung on, probably through sheer guts, while you made your escape. He seized, knew he was in trouble, and put himself out, using his ability as a dreamwalker."
"So he's somewhere else."
"It was probably the only thing he could do to save himself. If I'm correct someone else has the same ability to dreamwalk and they're using him as a lure for the rest of you. Don't ask me how. I'm guessing. If we manage to wake him, we'll have to assess any damage done. I want to call Dr. Adams-he's a renowned brain surgeon and he would be willing to help us."
Ryland shook his head. "We're fugitives, Lily. By law he has to turn us in."
"Yes, well," Lily hedged. "Hollister needs medical care immediately. I'll guarantee Dr. Adams's cooperation. In the meantime, we have to bring Jeff out of his dream."
"Lily, stop saying 'we.' You can't come with us," Ryland said firmly. "And before you protest, listen to me. If you're right and Jeff is being used to trap us in some way, then we need you here as an anchor with Kaden. More importantly, if someone else is lying in wait for us, you can't be identified. This house is our only haven. My men need to learn those exercises you keep talking about. We have nowhere else to go."
Lily had to admit he was right, but it didn't make it easy for her. She had a bad feeling, a portent of danger that wouldn't go away. And Nicolas felt it too.
"We'll need everyone to tap into the wave of energy just in case," Ryland added.
The men agreed without hesitation. Once again Lily was moved by the camaraderie the men had for one another, their willingness to put their lives and mental well-being on the line.
Nicolas sat tailor fashion right there in the middle of the floor, closing his eyes and centering himself. Ryland positioned himself on the bed beside Jeff Hollister. Lily watched as they sought inside themselves, a meditative practice essential to anyone who had to deal with psychic spillage. She knew the instant both men went under, by their slow, steady breathing.
RYLAND looked around curiously. He was on a sand dune, looking toward the ocean. Of course Jeff would choose a familiar place. The dunes stretched endlessly, and the waves pounded the shore, rushing toward him and breaking over the rocks, sweeping into the tide pools.
He began walking down the beach, knowing Jeff had to be close. Nicolas appeared briefly to his left, sprinting over the dunes away from him, shading his eyes and looking out to sea.
"He's out there"-Nicolas waved toward the ocean-"riding the waves. And he doesn't want to come back."
"Well, that's too damned bad. He has a family to think about," Ryland said. I don't like the feel of this.
Neither do I. I'm getting into position.
The water swelled, the wave growing larger and larger and beginning the rush toward shore. Ryland spotted Jeff on his surfboard gliding toward them as the wave began to curl, forming a long pipe. For a moment he was caught by the sheer mastery of Jeff's athleticism, the way he seemed a part of nature itself, anticipating the wave so that he shot through the pipe and came out just as the wave collapsed.
Ryland pulled his fascinated gaze away from Jeff and began scanning the water for possible threats. He was on full alert, his probing gaze taking in the sky, the sea, and the sand dunes. He knew Nicolas would be doing the same. He didn't have to check-Nicolas was first and always on alert. He spent months alone behind enemy lines, months tracking a single target. Men like Nicolas were never ambushed, they did the ambushing. Ryland was glad to have the man guarding his back.
Nicolas put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, a peculiar high-low sound that carried on the wind. Ryland spun around and ran to his right, toward the shore and Jeff.
Jeff Hollister immediately glided for shore, hitting shallow water on the run, automatically scooping the board beneath his arm as he ran toward them. "What are you doing here?"
"Bringing you home." Ryland indicated the relative cover of the nearest cliffs, away from the open dunes. He dropped two paces behind Hollister, covering his back.
"Cowlings is here somewhere, I've spotted him twice watching me." Hollister flung the board out of the way, sprinting barefoot down the beach. "You shouldn't have come, Captain, I can't go back. I don't want to live my life brain dead."
"Save your breath," Ryland snapped. "And run like hell."
The whistle cut through the air a second time, a single note this time. Ryland leapt on Jeff, tackling him, throwing his body onto the sand. Ryland landed on top, shielding him as bullets thudded into the sand just ahead of them. He had no idea of the effect of dream death on the physical body-but he feared the results. They both rolled toward the pounding waves and came to their feet on the run. Neither looked back, they sprinted, zigzagging to make themselves more difficult targets.
"Now!" Ryland gave the order just as the whistle cut through the air again. Both men were immediately in the sand, scooting forward, scrambling on their bellies toward cover. Bullets tore chunks out of the boulders just over their heads.
They dove behind the rocks and sank down, forcing their lungs to slow. "You're not brain dead, you idiot," Ryland said, affectionately slugging Jeff. "You're caught in a dream." He looked around. "Where's the girl?"
Hollister laughed. "She was here until I spotted that frog Cowlings. I knew something was up when he didn't make his move on me. I realized he was here to kill me. When he waited, I figured he thought you'd show up."
"He didn't count on Nicolas." Ryland grinned, pulled a gun from inside his shirt, and handed it to Jeff. "If you had a brain in the first place, you would have realized you couldn't be brain dead or you wouldn't have been able to figure all that out."
Jeff bellied down and wriggled through a shallow depression between two rocks to take a cautious look. "Look who walked into a trap." He fired off three rounds quickly and used the time to secure a better position behind a larger, flatter boulder that afforded him more of a view.
Ryland was watching him carefully. They were in a dream, but Jeff was no longer remembering he was dreaming and he was dragging one leg.
"It isn't an ambush if you know they're waiting. No one escapes Nicolas when he's hunting. We just have to picnic here for a short while and let him do what he does. Cowlings didn't know Nicolas could dreamwalk." Even as he was speaking, Ryland was crawling away from Jeff Hollister to put distance between them. The trap had been set for Ryland. Had Ryland not come to bring Hollister back, Cowlings would eventually have made his move against Hollister.
Bring Jeff out, Kaden. Pull Jeff out. Ryland gave the order through the telepathic link with his second-in-command. Jeff had created the dream so his leaving would add the burden of sustaining the dream to Ryland.
Hollister let out a small cry of protest, but the combined force of all the men was stronger than his will. Jeff felt the soft mattress beneath his back and waited for the mind-numbing pain. He opened his eyes cautiously. Lily Whitney bent over him, speaking softly, asking him a dozen questions, all the while occupying his mind to prevent him from thinking about the possibilities of brain damage.
Can you take him out, Nicolas? Ryland felt a sudden surge of energy in the air around them. Watch yourself, he's trying to project.
I need to get closer.
He's on the move. He's running. The wind rose suddenly, ferociously, creating an instant sandstorm. Ryland swore and scuttled across the ground, changing positions quickly, the sand stinging his skin. He kept his eyes closed, but allowed his senses to flare out across the landscape, searching for waves of energy indicating "hot" activity.
He heard the whine of a bullet but it thunked into the rocks where he had been. At once there was the sound of running steps in the sand. Ryland lifted his head to peer cautiously over the short boulder he was using as cover. Sand stung his eyes but he caught a glimpse of Cowlings running toward what looked like a door. Just before he reached it, Nicolas rose up from the dunes, a knife in his fist.
Ryland felt the instant surge of pure energy, and Cowlings simply disappeared. Kaden! Bring us out now. Now! Nicolas, wake up! He hesitated just long enough to make certain Nicolas obeyed him before following. Behind him the world turned to hell, fire raining from the skies and blowing across the sand, a boiling cauldron of orange and red flames.
NICOLAS and Ryland looked at each other across the safety of the room. "Did you feel that?" Ryland asked the others.
"What was it?" Kaden asked.
"It wasn't Cowlings. He couldn't produce that much energy. His telepathic powers are nowhere near that strong," Ryland said.
There was a short silence. Nicolas stood up, stretched, and went to Jeff Hollister's side. As he passed Kaden, he clapped a hand on Kaden's shoulder in a salute of thanks. "What do you think it was?" Nicolas asked Ryland.
"I think someone used Cowlings as a conduit. We're dealing with energy. There are all kinds of energy." Ryland looked at Lily. "Who would know how to manipulate wattage or voltage massing in the air?"
Lily sighed. "Someone at Donovans."