Read under the wire epub format

Authors: Cindy Gerard

under the wire

Under The Wire

Cindy Gerard

 

The Bodyguards Book #5

 

 

As always, this book is dedicated to the brave men and women of the U.S. military who defend, on a daily basis, all that we hold dear.

 

Also to my sisters in the trenches—you know who you are. May you always meet your deadlines, always make the lists, and always know that I answer to "friend."

 

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

 

I had a wonderful time researching this book. Some of my sources include
Sri Lanka,
Edition 2, Bradt Travel Guide, written by Royston Ellis;
Sri Lanka,
9th edition, Lonely Planet Publications, written by Richard Plunkett and Brigitte Ellemor;
Insight Compact Guide: Sri Lanka,
written by Martina Meithig; and the Lonely Planet
Sinhala Phrasebook,
2nd edition, written by Swarna Pragnaratne.

 

Through reading these wonderful books and consulting various maps, I fell in love with Sri Lanka, its beauty, its cultural diversity, and its stunning and varied topography, which ranges from the diamond blue waters of the coastal cities, to the arid region of the north, to the lush and exotic beauty of the rain forests. It is my fondest hope to someday visit this amazing place. Just as it is my hope that the people of Sri Lanka may someday see total peace between the Sinhalese and the Tamil.

 

For the sake of the story and in an attempt to showcase Sri Lanka's incredible beauty, I took many liberties with location and geography. The same can be said for the portions of the book set in Nicaragua. Many places are real. Many, however, have been fabricated to enhance and entertain but were drawn from various areas of the country and do actually exist—only NOT where I put them. I take full responsibility for those calculated errors.

 

Special thanks to:

 

SSG Ian Trammell, USAREC, my go-to guy for all big things that go boom.

 

Mark Pfeiffer from the Weapons Info news group for his generous and expert assistance in pinpointing appropriate weaponry.

 

Gail Barrett, for her generosity of time with my Spanish translations, and the always resourceful KOD-CNN loop for putting me in touch with Gail, who consulted her friends Kuni Takebe of Spain and Margarita Unger of Colombia.

 

Sgt. George Sanchez—my Nicaragua connection and stand-up soldier.

 

And last but not least, Tommy—for putting up with deadline dilemmas and settling for frozen pizza too many times while I finished this book.

 

 

PART I

 

Nicaragua, in the midst of the Contra revolution against the communist Sandinista government, seventeen years ago

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Managua, Nicaragua, July 10, 1:25
a.m.

 

Manny Ortega awoke from a dead sleep. Fully alert. All senses vibrating with awareness.

 

The sharp crack of breaking wood splintered the night silence like a gunshot. A blinding light pierced his eyes like a needle and glinted off the barrel of a Simonov carbine locked dead center on his chest.

 

Four Sandinista soldiers towered over his rumpled bed. Their faces were hard. Their weapons, ranging from the SKS to an AK-47 and a pair of Tokarev pistols, were drawn. The emblems on their uniforms identified them as members of Gen. Jorge Poveda's death squad.

 

Dios.

 

Trouble didn't get any deeper than this.

 

Yet Manny's first thought was to protect his lover. He reached for her, but Lily was gone. He was alone in the bed that smelled of sleep and sex and the scent of her. The tangled sheets beside him and under his palm were as cool as the night breeze drifting in through the open window. Relief that Lily was safe registered peripherally as a hard boot hit him midthigh.

 

"Levantate, perro traicionero, o te matamos ahi mismo."
Get up, traitorous dog, or we will kill you where you lie.

 

Manny shifted from shock to self-preservation mode. He raised his hands, smiled, and did what he did best: lied through his teeth.

 

"Traidor? Amigos, tienen al hombre equivocado. Soy uno de ustedes."
Traitor? Friends, you've got the wrong man. I'm one of you.

 

He nodded toward their uniforms—the same uniform he wore, although his reasons for wearing it were much different from theirs. "Soy Manolo Ortega. El teniente Ortega."
I am Manolo Ortega. Lieutenant Ortega.

 

"Sabemos quien eres, marrano contra. Y tambien lo sabe el general. Porque su puta americana, ella tambien abrio las piernas para tu placer, eh? Y tu le dices todo."
We know who you are, Contra pig. So does the general. Because his American whore, she spread her legs for you, too, eh? And you tell her everything.

 

Pain exploded through his head as the butt of the SKS slammed into his temple. He fought both dizzying nausea and the blinding effect of the blow as they dragged him from the bed, then ordered him to pull on his pants. Blood ran down his face and into his eyes as they shoved him, barefoot and shirtless, at gunpoint from his sister's third-floor apartment, where he'd spent the last week with Lily.

 

His American whore . . . you tell her everything . . .

 

The soldier's words hit Manny full in the face as he stumbled down the stairs.

 

Poveda's whore? Lily?

 

Manny didn't want to believe it. But they could only be talking of Lily Campora of the diamond black eyes and beautiful smile.

 

No torture the tyrannical general could inflict now that he knew Manny was a spy for the freedom fighters could be as painful as thinking Lily might have betrayed him.

 

He didn't want to believe it. And yet... she was gone. As if she had known Poveda's men were coming for him.

 

Betrayed.

 

He had been betrayed.

 

He'd been a fool.

 

And now he was a dead man.

 

His eyes burned from the blood and the sting of anger. He could not bear to think that the woman he loved could have turned him in. But why else—
how
else—would Poveda have found a reason to send his thugs and brand Manny a traitor? The things he had told Lily in the dark of night, naked and spent, he had told no one else. So what other explanation could there be?

 

He could not think of that now. If he wanted to live, he could not think of
her
now. He had to figure out how to get out of this. Then he would deal with Lily Campora.

 

Anger rolled over his heartbreak. Resolve kicked him into survival mode. Talking himself free was not an option. Poveda's soldiers did not want to hear anything he had to say. He was on his way to prison—if he made it that far.

 

The Managua streets were midnight dark and as deserted as a ghost town when they hauled him roughly to an open military jeep, then took off down the pocked and cracked pavement.

 

The rope cut into his wrists where they'd tied his hands behind his back. Already he could feel the loss of circulation in his fingers. The business end of the SKS was still aimed at his heart.

 

And he was running out of time.

 

He glanced at the soldier riding shotgun in the front seat. Recognized him, though he'd never met him. Garcia. Poveda's hatchet man. Specialized, it was said, in using a stiletto. Garcia also had a penchant for employing electricity to make his victims talk. He particularly enjoyed using it on freedom fighters.

 

Manny didn't recognize the driver or, in the seat at Manny's side, the young corporal with the SKS. He watched Manny like a hawk, his eyes narrowed and intent on Manny's face.

 

Well trained,
Manny thought.
Always watch a man's eyes. They are telegraphs to his thoughts.
For that reason, Manny kept his eyes as blank as white paper.

 

The jeep rumbled past the airport on the outskirts of the city, then turned off Carrtera Norte and onto a back road; he didn't let on that he'd figured out where they were taking him. He'd heard of the torture camps deep in the jungles. And he knew of no one who survived them—which was why he could not let the soldiers take him that far.

 

Miles and maybe an hour went by. The city grew distant. Up ahead he saw the glimmer of moonlight bouncing off water and realized they were approaching the Rio Tipitapa Bridge.

 

He didn't so much as glance ahead or to the side.

 

He sat. He waited. Hunched over as if still dazed from the blow to his head and resigned to his fate. They would soon find out he was far from it.

 

The city lights were a memory as the jeep hit a slight incline leading to the narrow stone bridge he had known was coming up. Manny counted to five, then made his move.

 

With a sharp kick at his guard's chest, Manny dislodged the SKS long enough to sway the barrel up and away from him. The rifle discharged wildly into the air; the fire flash shot from the end of the barrel like mini volcanic eruptions as he stood and leaped from the moving vehicle.

 

He landed on the pavement with a bone-jarring jolt, then rolled like a square wooden wheel. His shoulder and hip screamed in pain, but he forced himself to his feet to the serrated screech of squealing brakes and guttural shouts.

 

He didn't wait to see if the soldiers had drawn on him. Off balance with his hands tied, he vaulted to the stone rail of the bridge. Without a backward glance and swallowing back his fear of heights, he launched himself toward the muddy Tipitapa, flowing fifteen feet below.

 

The night exploded in a hail of gunfire just before he hit the surface of the rapidly running river. The current sucked him under. He shot toward the riverbed like a bullet, found the silty bottom with his feet, and, praying he had the lung power, pushed off.

 

His lungs burned. His throat ached. But finally, he surfaced. On a gasping breath, he shook the water from his eyes. Then for the first time since Poveda's men had shattered his sleep and his illusions about Lily, he found something to smile about. The swift-running current had already carried him fifty yards downriver. This far from the bridge, there was no way the soldiers could spot him in the inky black night.

 

It was the rainy season,
gracias a Dios,
or he'd more than likely have broken both ankles landing in two feet of water instead of fifteen. His smile was short-lived. The current sucked him down again in a vortex of speed and suffocating darkness. Without the use of his arms, the river rolled him like a deadhead—a waterlogged stump— spinning him out of control. The harder he fought, the deeper the river took him.

 

Holding his breath, battling unconsciousness, he forced himself to relax, to sink to the bottom again, then pushed off with a prayer. For the second time, he broke the surface with a gasp, coughing mud-clogged water and sucking air. He was a good hundred yards downriver now. The jungle had thickened like a gray-green fog, closing in on the meandering path that years of spring and summer floods had cut into the bank as the Tipitapa flowed toward Lago de Nicaragua a hundred miles downstream.

 

It wasn't until his third trip down that he figured out what to do. The only way to fight the current and gravity was to go with it. When he surfaced the next time, he spread his legs and, using them as rudders, rode the river.

 

With concentrated effort, he let himself be a log instead of fighting the fact that he was one. Logs float. So he floated. Coughing and spitting and gasping for air. Sometimes on his back. Sometimes on his belly. However the river wanted him. But always with an eye toward the shore, searching for an opportunity to beach himself. But the night was dark; it was difficult to see, and staying afloat took most of his concentration.

 

He didn't know how long he drifted that way. Long enough that his strength had faded. And he suspected he knew the reason why.

 

Besides the bump and gash on his head from the rifle blow, one of the soldiers had gotten lucky. As Manny was free-falling off the bridge, he'd felt the round connect with his shoulder. Felt the slice, felt the burn.

 

And now he felt the effect of the blood loss.

 

Light-headedness. Fatigue. And for the first time, disorientation.

 

A wave of darkness hit him and he sank under again. He battled the urge to struggle. Slowly let himself drift to the surface and grabbed the breath he desperately needed. He fought for his life. Fought the chills that overtook him in the depths of this hot summer night. Made himself stay relaxed so he wouldn't sink like a stone again.

 

And then he was combating something that snagged at his legs. Grabbed at his feet.

 

Panic hit before understanding, and with it an adrenaline spike that revived him. The Tipitapa was home to any number of night stalkers—including the only freshwater sharks in the world. And if the bull sharks didn't get him, there was a good chance a bushmaster would. He'd never tangled with a pit viper but knew that one venomous bite from the monster snake could kill a man in minutes. He prayed to God he wouldn't have to fight the snake now. It was a battle he could never win.

 

He kicked for his life and managed only to become more entangled. And that's when it hit him. Brush. He'd hit a patch of brush. Which could mean a downed tree.

 

Which meant shoreline.

 

Tree branches, not a shark or a snake, had latched on to his pant legs and ended his free float down the river.

 

He was saved. And yet this saving grace could be the death of him as the current and the brush sucked him under one more time.

 

One more time, Manny surfaced, his lungs screaming for oxygen, his head pounding from the pressure. He had to figure out a way to break free, yet use the tree to keep him from floating away or sucking him under again. Each time he'd gone down, it had become harder to come up. He strongly suspected he had very few resurrections left in him.

 

Drawing on the last of his reservoir of strength, he dug deep and threw a leg over what felt like a stout arm of the tree. The serrated rip of tearing fabric blended with the sounds of the rushing river and his panting breath. When he felt a connection, he clamped his thighs together like a vise and heaved his weight into righting himself.

 

He fell face-first on the log, teetered like a tightrope walker as his St. Christopher medal clinked softly against it. Chest heaving, he used his chin, his shoulders, his forehead; he levered himself upright. The river waked around his hips, strong and determined to knock him from his perch.

 

But he hung on.

 

Gasping for breath. Fighting the pain that screamed through his arm and head. Pain that kept him clinging to consciousness. And conviction.

 

No way was he going back into that spin cycle. This, he understood, was his last chance. If he fell back into the river, he was done for and Poveda would have won. That fact, above all, kept Manny going.

 

He shook his head. The deluge of pain cleared the cobwebs. Battling for balance, he straddled the tree trunk and fought to orient himself to his position. The night was dark, but a sliver of moonlight skimmed the rippling water. Beyond, he could make out the riverbank. See the roots of the downed madrono tree that held him, the base of its trunk disappearing into the water some thirty feet away.

 

Thirty feet that separated him from drowning.

 

On a bracing breath, he leaned back, just far enough so he could reach the tree with his hands and gain a measure of balance. Now, if he could only
feel
his hands.

 

Inch by cautious inch, he pushed forward, his eyes on the bank, his mind blank of anything but reaching his goal. He didn't think of the pain. He didn't think about falling. He didn't think about the clammy night air that cooled his bare, wet skin and made him shiver. Didn't think about the dizzying rush of water beneath him or the light-headedness that made him nauseous.

 

Most of all, he didn't think about Lily. To think of her would make him weak. To think of her betrayal would make him want to die.

 

So he pressed forward at a snail's pace. It felt like years. A century passed as mosquitoes bit him incessantly and night creatures slithered along the surface and brushed against his bare feet.

 

Finally, his toes touched mud.

 

Gracias a Dios.

 

Relief ran as deep as the night. He was utterly exhausted, barely conscious. Muscle memory and guts propelled him as he threw his leg over the log—and sank up to his chest in thick, muddy water and muck.

 

He sucked in a wheezing breath when the cool water rushed over the inside of his thighs that had been scraped raw from grating across the madrono bark. His arm throbbed and burned like someone had nailed him with a branding iron. His head pounded.

 

He had no feeling in his hands. No conception of time as he half-stumbled, half-crawled his way out of the water. Digging with his chin, his shoulders ... knees, toes, whatever it took... he worked his way up the steep, muddy bank.

 

Where he collapsed on the ground. Facedown. Covered in muck. The religious medal hanging from his neck slapped him in the face when he dropped.

 

Darkness sucked him under like the river. He passed out cold—passed out deep. And alone with his tormented body and mind, he dreamed fitful dreams of Lily.

 

Of the first time he'd seen her beautiful, treacherous face.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Managua, Nicaragua, residence of Gen. Jorge Poveda, nine days earlier, July 1

 

Lily needed air. And she needed it now. Even more, she needed to get out of this crowd.

 

It wasn't proper. It wasn't politically correct, but Lily Campora couldn't take another second of the oh-so-polite, oh-so-porous posturing of the thirty or so guests milling about inside Gen. Jorge Poveda's garishly opulent home.

 

She no longer cared that she represented her Doctors Without Borders medical team stationed here in Managua. It no longer mattered that her attendance at this sham of a celebration was the equivalent of a mandate issued by the grandiose military leader of Nicaragua's communist Sandinista regime. She could no longer tolerate the boorish general's subtle but aggressive attempts to seduce her.
                                                                 

 

She abhorred Poveda, despised all he stood for, and if she didn't get away from him soon she was going to do or say something she'd regret. Something that, in this war-torn country, could place her and her DWB team in a volatile and dangerous situation.

 

So she left. Slipped silently out the double French doors and onto the terrace where she could be alone in the humid Central American night.

 

Alone to think. Alone to grieve over news she'd barely had time to absorb. To deal with the guilt that had been carving on her conscience all evening like a rusty knife.

 

Kara Kaiser was dead.

 

Lily still couldn't believe it.

 

The night was warm and sultry. The soft breeze was scented of the bougainvillea-draped terrace and of sea salt from the southernmost waters of the North Pacific. Yet a chill cut to the bone when she thought back to the horrible news she'd received only minutes before she'd had to leave for this grueling dinner party.

 

Kara was dead.

 

A tear fell—the first Lily had let herself shed—as she stood at the ornately crafted concrete rail surrounding the stone terrace. She stared without seeing at the lush tropical gardens beyond and thought back to the moment this afternoon when Dr. Russell Davis, her DWB team's head surgeon, had come to the tent she had shared with Kara at the clinic compound.

 

One look at his eyes and Lily had known something terrible had happened. The strain on Russ's face foreshadowed news that could only be grim.

 

"What? What's wrong?"

 

He'd sat down on Lily's cot; his legs had just sort of folded, like the weight he carried was too much to bear.

 

A terrified trepidation had filled Lily's chest as she waited for Russ to gather himself.

 

"We lost Kara," he finally said, looking weary and old for someone so vibrant and young.

 

No soft soap. No buffer to ease the way.

 

We lost Kara.

 

"Oh God."

 

Russ had buried his head in his hands. "They were evacuating an injured child from Jinotega to Managua. The pilot radioed that he was experiencing engine trouble. That was at noon. We didn't hear anything more until a few minutes ago. A search party found the bird."

 

"Jesus, Lily." Tears had misted the generally unflappable doctor's eyes when he looked up at her. "No one survived the crash."

 

Lily's heart had stopped. So had her world. Kara Kaiser, like Lily, was one of six nurses on the team who had worked side by side in the fetid, draining heat for the past six months. Because Lily had drawn the short straw and gotten herself delegated to represent the team at this damn gathering tonight, Kara had taken Lily's run in the chopper today.

 

Muffled laughter bled outside to the terrace. Lily touched trembling fingertips to her lips, wishing she were anywhere but here. Each month, the pompous general bestowed platitudes and long-winded speeches, and personally decorated "heroes" for the benefit of the invited press. Each month, one of the DWB team members dutifully attended at Poveda's request. Playing his nasty game lessened the chances of their visas being arbitrarily revoked, which would force the team to leave before their work with the mudslide victims of Nicaragua was done.

 

Before their work was done.

 

Kara's work was done.

 

Kara's life was over.

 

Tears trickled down Lily's face. Why had this happened? Why was there so much suffering—not just here but all over the world? And why, at twenty-eight, did Lily feel like an old and used-up soul?

 

She
should have been dead, not Kara, who was barely twenty-two and wide-eyed, her spirit not yet sullied by the grim reality of life.

 

Guilt, crashing and relentless, weighed like lead.

 

Grief, absolute and consuming, suffocated her.

 

And heaped over it all was the resounding awareness of her own mortality. Like Kara's, Lily's life could be over in a heartbeat. And what would Lily have to show for it? A bad, childless marriage that had ended over a year ago after lasting five years too long. A career where she saw more pain and suffering than the bandages she regularly applied could heal. An existence void of anything but work.

 

God, she was tired. She braced the flat of her palms on the terrace rail. Regret, for a life that had begun with so much promise but had digressed to one tragic scene of poverty, disease and despair after another, drained her of what spirit she had left.

 

She felt empty. Empty and wholly, achingly alone.

 

"Senorita."

 

Startled, she looked over her shoulder. A young soldier approached her, his smile tentative as if he were afraid she might run.

 

She thought about it. About running, not necessarily from him, but from her life. The weight of it. The pain of it. The recurrent cycle of sameness.

 

But then she looked into his eyes. And it struck her. Here was something different. Here was someone different.

 

"It is a beautiful night, yes?" he asked in a wonderfully accented English that, combined with his equally beautiful presence, both intrigued and anchored her where she stood.

 

"Yes," she agreed. "Beautiful."

 

Before barely an hour passed, and against everything Lily stood for, she agreed to much, much more.

 

 

 

Her name was Lily. Lily Campora. Stunning. Beautiful. American. And before the night was over, Manny was determined to make her smile for him ... perhaps even more than smile.

 

All evening, as he'd endured Gen. Poveda's "celebration" dinner, Manny had been waiting for his chance to be alone with her. When he saw her slip quietly outside of Poveda's grandiose and palatial house, Manny waited a few minutes, then followed her out to the secluded terrace.

 

As she had when he'd first set eyes on her, she took his breath away.

 

"Senorita." He approached her tentatively, afraid she might be startled when he walked up behind her. "It is a beautiful night, yes?"

 

Her head came up. She sniffed delicately and wiped the back of her hand over her cheek before glancing over her shoulder at him. "Beautiful," she agreed, and looked away.

 

Then she walked away. Not far. Only a few steps down the terrace railing where pink and white bougainvillea twined and clung. Still, it was far enough to let Manny know she did not welcome company.

 

The gesture was small deterrent for a man on a mission. Even before he had found her out here alone with the weight of tears glimmering on lashes as dark and thick as the heavy fall of black hair tumbling down her back, he'd recognized the sorrow and despair etched in her eyes. Eyes the color of a midnight sky and set in the most extraordinary face—a face that had mesmerized him through each of the five dinner courses.

 

Hers was an angel's face—porcelain skin, delicate brows, Cupid's-bow lips that had rarely tipped into a smile all evening. Even then those smiles had been forced. Yes, she had an angel's face. So appropriate, because Manny knew that she was an angel. An angel of mercy who was being honored tonight for her service with her American DWB medical team. Just as he was being honored by the Sandinista government for his bravery as a soldier.

 

The bitterness he felt over that dubious honor and the hatred he felt for Poveda and all he stood for were overshadowed in this moment by his concern for the beautiful American.

 

So he ignored her subtle attempt to get rid of him. He'd waited all night for a chance to get her alone. He was going to take full advantage. "It is too beautiful a night to spend alone and unhappy, would you agree?"

 

She was quiet for a time, then turned to face him with a look that relayed controlled patience. "You're very kind—"

 

"But," he preempted, knowing she was about to launch another dismissal, "you would much prefer it if I left you alone."

 

She tilted her head, studied him with more tolerance than interest, then reluctantly glanced at the emblem on his uniform. "Lieutenant, is it?"

 

He bowed, clicked his heels together in an exaggerated show of military elan. "At your disposal, Senorita Campora."

 

To the tilt of her head she added a slight narrowing of her eyes. "You know my name."

 

"I made it a point to, yes."

 

Her back stiffened marginally. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."

 

"Oh no, senorita, it is I who am at a disadvantage. Your beauty has ... how do you say in English?" He frowned, then flashed his most guileless grin. "Ah ... it comes to me. Your beauty has left me without speech."

 

One corner of her beautiful mouth tipped up into an almost smile. She found him amusing—perhaps even ridiculous. That was fine. He would take her smiles however he could get them.

 

"Speechless?" She shook her head. "That's a hard sell, Lieutenant, considering you haven't stopped talking since you walked out here."

 

"This is true," he admitted, smiling with her. He lifted a hand, a show of agreement. "Maybe my words, they were not so right. My English sometimes ... is not so good." His English was fine, but pretending otherwise better suited his purpose tonight. "Maybe 'senseless' is the term I am searching for."

 

Another slow, soft smile had Manny's heart swelling—along with another body part that had been on the verge of response since he first saw her.

 

"Tell me," she continued, her interest piqued even though he could see that she was hesitant to allow herself this small curiosity. "How does one so young become such an accomplished flirt? And a lieutenant to boot."

 

"Flirt?" He pressed a hand to his chest, feigning innocence and shock, then negating both with a self-deprecating grin. "But no. I only meant to make you smile. Tears on such a beautiful woman ... no. It is not right. And I am not so young as you might think," he assured her with a slight bow. "Manolo Ortega. And I'm very pleased to finally meet you."

 

Again, she was tentative, but he knew he held her interest when she allowed herself another question. "Finally?"

 

"It has been an eternity since I first saw you at the far end of the table at dinner."

 

She shook her head with a "give me a break" roll of her expressive eyes. "Let's amend that to 'very accomplished flirt.'"

 

Manny took a chance and walked closer; he leaned an elbow on the concrete rail, plucked a flower from a bougainvillea vine, and grinned up at her. "You misinterpret my intentions."

 

"Do I?"

 

He touched the pink petals of the flower to her bare shoulder, let it trail slowly down her arm, then drop away when she stiffened. "It is just that you are so sad. And now, no matter how hard I try to make you happy, for some reason you don't feel you deserve to be. And that knowledge hurts my heart."

 

He offered her the flower.

 

Her eyes softened, misted over, before she accepted his gift. "Okay. So maybe you're not so young after all."

 

Her tears weren't the only giveaway. The quiet regret in her words also told him that he'd been right. She was desperately unhappy—which made him more resolved than ever to make her forget that pain.

 

And yes, he would make her forget, because about one thing she was correct. He was an accomplished flirt. He was also a very determined man.

 

"So, Lily, what should we do with you, do you think?"

 

She was still guarded, but she turned to face him again, leaning a slim hip against the terrace rail. "We?"

 

"But yes. In my experience," he said, intrigued by the play of moonlight over her ivory skin and by the lovely curve where her neck met her shoulder, "two make things so much better than one, alone. Especially on a night like this. For instance, have you even noticed the stars?"

 

She breathed in the flower, glanced guiltily at the sky, then back at him. "Actually ... no."

 

"Well then, you see? It was meant to be. What you do not appreciate by yourself, I can help you enjoy. Now you must look again. Up, up," he insisted when he was met with an impatient sigh. "I will point out what you have missed out here on your own."

 

If for no other reason than to placate him, she tipped her head back.

 

"Amazing, is it not?"

 

She gave a reluctant nod. "Yes. It's quite beautiful."

 

"Do you have skies like this in America, Lily? Ink black and glittering with brilliant prisms of light?"

 

"We do, yes," she said after a moment, then made an admission that seemed to surprise her. "But it's been a long time since I've taken time to stargaze."

 

"Too long, I am thinking."

 

She startled when he pushed away from the rail and moved in close behind her.

 

"Much too long. A woman as lovely as you should always have stars in her eyes.

 

"Look there," he said when he sensed she was about to put some distance between them. "Do you see the one directly above? The one that shines blue?"

 

When she appeared to be searching and not finding, he took her hand in his, lifted it skyward, and pointed due west. "Just there. Do you see it now?"

 

Her skin beneath his fingers was as petal soft as the flower. Summer warm. Her scent, this close, was fresh and clean and undeniably woman. And the tension that he sensed tighten her slight body made a transition from uncertainty to awareness. Awareness that he was only too pleased to awaken.

 

Yes, she was still resistant, but she was aware of his intentions to seduce her—he'd made no bones about that. Aware that she was more open to the idea of pleasure, just for herself, than she might have thought.

 

"I... I'm not certain."

 

Manny was. He was certain they were no longer talking about stars. What she was uncertain about was the sexual tension arcing between. A tension that had shifted to something profound the moment he'd touched her.

 

And he was certain that before this night was over, not only would the beautiful Lily smile for him, but she would also undress for him. Open her lovely legs for him, take pleasure from him in the most intimate way that a man could pleasure a woman, and she would forget all about her pain.

 

"There," he whispered, pressing his cheek to hers and with his hand at her throat tipping her head ever so slightly upward. "Just there ... do you see it now?"

 

Nuzzling her hair aside, he touched his lips to the pulse that jumped wildly at her throat. When she didn't resist, he slid one hand around her small waist, folded the hand that was holding hers in and against her body.

 

He held her that way for long moments. Letting her get used to the feel of him. To the idea of succumbing to the allure of the undeniable sexual spark arcing between them.

 

The notion of acting on such an attraction to a stranger was foreign to a woman like her. He understood that. Just like he understood the moment she decided to surrender.

 

Her head fell back against his shoulder. A shuddering breath eddied out; beneath the modest neckline of her black dress her generous breasts rose and fell; the tight little beads of her nipples pressing against raw silk spoke of her arousal.

 

And yet she resisted. "I... I should go back... inside."

 

Poor Lily. It seemed she was programmed to resist, yet he took heart when she didn't move away from him.

 

In a voice as soft as the night breeze, he challenged her. "Do you always do what you should do? Have you ever, even once, considered doing something that only makes you happy?"

 

She didn't answer. But her body, heated now and trembling, told him everything he needed to know.

 

"What will make you happy, Lily?" he whispered against her ear. "Because that is all I want for you. You are a woman, I think, who deserves to be happy. And yet, you are so sad."

 

The breath she emitted was more need than denial, a heartbreaking sound that moved him deeply. With the slowest of caresses, he slid his hand from her waist to her belly, drew her back against his hips so she could feel the length and thickness of his erection pressing against her.

 

"I could make you think of nothing but me."

 

She pushed out a strained laugh and shivered in his arms. "Do I honestly look like a woman who would allow a stranger to seduce me?"

 

Ah. One last attempt to fight it.

 

"But no." He nuzzled along her neck and fed that little fire he wanted to stoke to an inferno. "And that is why you are so special. And why you look like a woman who needs to be seduced."

 

She trembled when he kissed her jaw, let her head fall to the side, and allowed him to explore her throat with his mouth.

 

"I... this ... my God." Her breath caught when he rocked his hips against hers. "What am I doing?"

 

"You are doing what comes natural, yes? You are responding like a woman. You are thinking of us." He lowered his voice to a raspy whisper. "Together. With my mouth here." He filled his palm with the generous weight of one breast.

 

"And here." Relentless, he slid his other hand with slow, hot friction down her belly to brush his fingers across her mound. "Just think of my mouth here, Lily."

 

She groaned and covered his hand with hers— initially, he thought she meant to push it away. Instead, she pressed him closer. He went rock hard.