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Dr. Robert Davidson marveled at the eerie beauty as he ducked into a narrow alley between two crumbling buildings and took his usual shortcut toward the pub. He knew better than to travel in the open when the soldiers were in town. He might have come here as part of a government team to document humanitarian conditions, but that wouldn't stop some trigger-happy young fool from putting a bullet between his shoulder blades. General Bruno DeBruzkya's soldiers were equal opportunity killers.
Robert had had his fill of war. He'd seen too much of it in the ten months he'd been in the war-torn country of Rebelia. Horrors he wouldn't soon forget. Horrors that would revisit him in his sleep for a very long time to come.
He'd done what he could to ease the pain and suffering of the innocents caught in the crossfire, but time had run out. After months of unrest, civil war had finally erupted. Just that morning DeBruzkya had ordered all Americans out of the country - or suffer the consequences.
Robert didn't have to be told twice.
But it wasn't the war raging all around that claimed his thoughts as he passed by the deserted marketplace and jay-walked toward the old church across the street. His harried pace had absolutely nothing to do with the dangers of traveling at night in an area teeming with hostile soldiers, small-weapons fire, and the occasional blast of a mortar round. Robert had to reach Lily. Had to convince her to leave with him. To get on that last plane out.
Before it was too late.
He knew her well enough to expect an argument. American journalist Lily Scott was not the kind of woman to duck and run when the going got tough. She thrived on hardship; she was at her best when the chips were down and the odds were stacked against her. Give her a cause, and she would fight to the end.
But while Robert admired her courage and tenacity, he wasn't going to let her overdeveloped sense of responsibility put her life in jeopardy. Lily might be fighting the good fight here in this tiny country, but Robert wasn't going to let her get herself killed. He wasn't going to lose her to a war nobody seemed to care about.
She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. The only good thing that had come out of this ten-month stint in hell. Lily had kept him going on days when he'd wanted to quit. Days when he'd seen enough and wanted nothing more than to take the next plane out and forget about the hungry children and grieving widows and a political system run amok with corruption. Lily was an oasis of goodness in an ocean of despair. He'd only known her for two months, but even surrounded by a devastated country and indiscriminate violence, they'd been the best two months of his life.
Robert was going to get her on board that jet. He was going to take her home whether she wanted to go or not. Then he was going to spend the next fifty years showing her how much he loved her. The thought made him grin. And he felt like an idiot tromping over the ruins of what had once been a café. No one smiled in Rebelia.
At the end of the street he entered the church through the front door. The roof had collapsed and burned the pews. Tendrils of smoke rose from the destruction like ghostly fingers as he made his way along the wall toward the rear exit. He looked up to see another missile streak across the sky, its eerie whistle making the hairs at his nape prickle uneasily. It was a breathtaking sight, frightening and awesome at once and powerful enough to unnerve even the most seasoned soldier.
Breaking into a run, he left through the rear door and crossed the small cemetery where the headstones glowed ethereally in the darkness. At the next street, he checked for soldiers then headed toward the edge of town where he could see the spire of the boardinghouse and pub where she rented a room on the second floor. The light in her room shone like a beacon from the single window above her writing desk, and he smiled again. Anticipation stirred at the thought of seeing her. He wondered if she was sitting at her desk, staring at her laptop screen, her brows knit in concentration as she tapped on the keys and poured her heart and soul onto paper.
The need to see her, to touch her, sent him into a dead run. He could hear the rumble of tanks in the distance, closer than he'd thought but not dangerously so. But he knew the soldiers would be here soon. And he knew all hell would break loose once they arrived.
All he had to do was convince her to leave with him. Not an easy task considering she'd taken it upon herself to save the country single-handedly. Damn stubborn woman.
He could do it, Robert told himself as he climbed the stone steps and crossed to the pub's entrance. Damn it, he loved her. And she loved him. She may not have said those words, but he could see it in her eyes. When she smiled at him. When she touched him. When they made love. Just because she'd refused to leave with him that morning didn't mean she would again now that she'd had time to think about it. Now that the bombs had started falling. Lily Scott might be on a crusade to save the people of Rebelia, but she wasn't a fool.
He shoved open the heavy wooden door. A German polka played merrily from the ancient jukebox. The impact of a mortar striking the earth nearby rattled the windows and the glasses hanging above the bar. Hans Pavlar, the old bartender, looked up from his miniature television when Robert walked in and grinned. "Hey, American, I thought you would be on your way home by now."
Robert grinned back. "I've got one more thing to do, old man."
Hans looked toward the stairs leading to the rented rooms above. "She's a stubborn one, our Miss Lily."
"Yeah, well, so am I."
"She will not go with you, my American friend."
Aware that his heart was pounding hard against his ribs, Robert started for the stairs. "We'll see about that."
He took the stairs two at a time to the second level. Yellow light slanted from beneath her door. He crossed to it and rapped hard with his fist. "Lily, it's Robert."
He closed his eyes, refusing to acknowledge that he was shaken. That he was terrified because deep down inside he knew she was going to refuse.
The door swung open. The world shook a little beneath his feet at the sight of her. Iridescent hazel eyes. A complexion as fine as German porcelain. Wavy strawberry-blond hair pulled into an unruly ponytail.
She blinked once as if his presence surprised her, then a slow smile pulled at her full mouth. "I thought you would already be on the plane."
He wanted to devour her in a single bite. "I can't leave without you." He closed the distance between them, backed her into the room and slammed the door behind him. "I want you to come with me."
He saw the answer in her eyes before she uttered a word and he heard the message as loud and clear as the bombs dropping outside.
Feeling desperate and scared and a little out of control, he leaned close to her, slid his hands through her hair and kissed her. He wasn't sure why he did it. Maybe because he felt so goddamn helpless. Maybe because he was scared. Maybe because his entire world revolved around this woman, and he couldn't bear the thought of walking away without her.
She kissed him back. Heat mingled with desperation and fused into something volatile and unstable. Fear and desire and a hundred other emotions pounded through him with every beat of his heart. He poured all of those emotions into the kiss. Mewling, she opened to him. Dizzy for the taste of her, he used his tongue, wanting her with an urgency that was insane at a time like this. They'd made love just that morning, but he was already hard and pulsing and wanting her all over again. He knew it was crazy, but that's the way things had become between them, and he was helpless to stop. He could never stop when it came to Lily.
Excerpted from The Phoenix Encounter by Linda Castillo Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 27, 2010
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