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" The tall, dark-haired man stared, his silver gaze intense. "A thousand times better than the last time I saw you."
Clutching the door handle and peering out through the six-inch crack, Lilly Gideon tried hard not to tremble. Belatedly, she realized she never should have opened the door. But then, she hadn't known this man had been coming up the sidewalk.
Or had she? Something, some inner restlessness, had given her the urge to step out onto the front porch. Surely, she hadn't been going to meet this stranger who talked as if he knew her. He had a confident air of masculine authority and the sheer strength of his muscular body overwhelmed her.
She struggled to speak, to summon up some sort of relatively normal response. She was safe, she told herself over and over like a mantra, ignoring the shiver of dread working its way up her spine. Finally safe. Her brother, Lucas, his wife, Blythe, and her daughter, Hailey, were in the kitchen and would come running at the slightest sound. All she had to do was call. But staring at the handsome stranger, still she couldn't seem to force words past her closed-up throat.
"Lilly?" he asked, the deep dustiness of his voice striking a chord inside her, as if her soul recognized him. "It's me, Kane McGraw. Don't you remember me?"
Pushing away the panic, she struggled to simply breathe. The chiseled planes of his rugged face did seem achingly familiar, but with her tangled confusion of memories, she didn't know if this was a good thing or bad. He wore his dark hair short, spiky, a bit longer than military style, which added to his self-confident appearance. Once again, she found him intimidating.
Despite her best effort to appear brave, she let her hand creep up to her throat and dredged up words. "I
no. I don't remember you."
Her twin brother, Lucas, must have had a second sense, too. Something that told him she needed him right now. "Lilly?" he called, appearing in the arched opening that led to the foyer. "Are you all right?"
Relief flooding her, she turned her panicked gaze toward him, imploring silently for help.
"What's wrong?" Lucas strode toward her, putting himself in front of her even as he yanked the door all the way open.
"Kane?" Despite hearing the joy in her brother's voice, Lilly stepped back, taking refuge in the small space between the door and the wall. She hated the way terror still consumed her, but for now she didn't yet have the strength to overcome it. Maybe someday, but not just yet. She only hoped that with time.
"Lucas!" The two men gave each other the quick shoulder hug used by men.
"That was fast," Lucas said, the sun making his brown hair appear blond. He glanced at Lilly, and then back at their visitor, grinning. Lilly envied her brother's carefree attitude. Newly married and in love, his clear blue eyes radiated happiness. She kept hoping some of it would rub off on her. So far, she hadn't been so blessed.
Kane laughed, a throaty chuckle, drawing her attention. "As soon as you told me what you needed, I dropped everything. My vacation days were piling up unused anyway. I think the Society of Pack Protectors was shocked that I wanted to take them."
Though the deep rumble of this stranger's voice chased away the chill inside her, she kept herself utterly still, hoping she wouldn't draw any attention to herself. Of course, her brother noticed immediately.
"Lilly?" Lucas held out his hand, waiting until she'd slipped her fingers into his before continuing. "Don't you remember Kane? He helped us rescue you."
The reassuring sincerity in Lucas's expression calmed her enough to enable her to look at the other man. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "My memories from that time are all blurry."
Kane's smoky gaze held hers. "That's understandable. You've been through a lot."
She nodded, although fifteen years of torture, clinging to the edge of life, had been more than a lot. She was damaged, broken in more ways than one. Though she was eager to purge that time from her memory and heal herself so she could stride with confidence into the world, first she had to shake the paralyzing terror that dogged her every move.
Before she could run, she needed to walk. Before she could walk, she'd have to manage a crawl.
"Come on in," Lucas said, pulling Lilly toward him so he could fully open the door. She yanked her hand free, fighting the awful tide of panic rising in her throat. Though she wanted to flee, to tear down the hall toward her room, where she could close herself in and feel safe, she kept herself still, legs rooted in the carpet. She hated her fear and used this to find the strength to stand her ground. Her hands were clenched into fists, but despite that, she managed to lift her head and study Lucas's friend.
"Welcome," she said, trying to remember how to sound warm.
At her greeting, he smiled. Not just any smile, but a devastating curve of the mouth that heated her and inexplicably sent her pulse racing. Before, she'd thought him good-looking, in a muscular, dangerous sort of way. But now, feeling the pull of his grin, she realized he was more than that. He was beautiful, like a dark angel who'd recently tumbled from heaven.
She shivered. She'd had enough of angels and prophets, thank you very much.
"Blythe will be happy to see you." Lucas strode toward the kitchen, calling his wife's name as he went. Blythe met him halfway, her long blond hair pulled into a neat braid. As she moved toward them, she appeared to dance on her bare feet. Her bright green eyes lit up when she saw Kane.
Lilly watched, as detached as if she were separated from the others by a thick sheet of glass. Blythe, hugged Kane as if he was a long-lost brother, then her daughter, Hailey, squealed with delight as she threw herself at the tall man's legs.
Once the greetings and hugs were finished and things quieted down, Lucas led the way into the kitchen. He waited until everyone else had disappeared inside before returning to retrieve Lilly, who still stood frozen, unable to make herself move.
"Are you coming?" he asked, the concern in his voice making her feel guilty.
Rather than answer, she shook her head, sending her long hair whipping around her. Wrapping her arms around herself, even though the movement gave her no comfort, she swallowed. "I'm not feeling well," she told him. "I'm going to go lie down."
His expression sharpened, letting her know he didn't entirely buy the lie. But then, as she'd known he would, he nodded. "I'll bring you something to eat later then, okay?"
Angryboth at herself for lacking the courage to join them and, unreasonably, at him for cutting her so much slackshe nodded. Then, without another word, she spun on her heel and marched away to her room.
Once there, she didn't dissolve into tears and throw herself on her bed. She supposed that would have been progress, at least. Instead, she went to the small desk she'd placed in front of the window, and took a seat, gazing outside and marveling once again at how green everything was here. As she'd learned to do while trapped in a dank, basement cell, she let her mind separate from her body. She wondered if she'd ever stop wanting to curl up and die.
Following Lucas and Blythe into the kitchen, Kane fought the urge to turn back and go after Lilly. His wolf had once again reared his wild head the instant he'd inhaled Lilly's fragile and feminine scent. On the long drive from Texas to Seattle, he'd thought about this reaction, which had stunned him the first time he'd seen her, half-dead in a concrete cell. Then, he'd wondered if it had been a fluke. Now he knew it hadn't. The question was, what was he going to do about it?
Though she no longer looked like a broken rag-doll, Lilly was still clearly damaged. Kane would have to be careful, especially since he'd just agreed to act as her full-time bodyguard.
"Does she know why I'm here?" Kane asked, taking a seat at the oak-planked, country-style table and accepting the beer Blythe brought him.
"Just a minute." Lucas cast a warning look at Hailey, which Blythe picked up on.
"Hailey, why don't we watch one of your DVDs," Blythe said, taking her daughter's hand and leading her from the kitchen.
Kane sipped on his beer. Lucas waited until the sound of the television came on before speaking. "No. Despite therapy once a week, she spends most of her time in a state close to terrified anxiety. I thought it better if she didn't know." He got up, crossed to the fridge and snagged his own beer.
"About any of it?"
Lucas's troubled expression gave Kane his answer. "I've been trying to shield her as best I can. She isn't aware of the break-in attempt. I had Blythe and Hailey take her out for ice cream when the police came to make their report."
"And you're confident they weren't after Hailey?"
"Yes." Lucas clenched his jaw. "They broke in through Lilly's window. This might have been a coincidence, except they never left her room. They tore it apart like they were looking for something."
"You also said someone tried to abduct her?"
"Yes. Someone tried to grab her when she and Blythe were leaving therapy, but Blythe pretty much convinced her that the guy was trying to rob them."
"How sure are you that he wasn't?"
Dragging his hand across his chin, Lucas nodded. "First off, he didn't try and get their purses. Second, he left Blythe alone. The SOB went right for Lilly."
Kane nodded. Both he and Lucas had dealt with the crazy cult members who'd belonged to Sanctuary, Jacob Gideon's pseudo-religious organization. They'd worked together, along with The Society of Pack Protectors, to take them down. In the process, they'd not only rescued Blythe and her daughter, Hailey, but they'd saved Lilly, Lucas's sister, whom he'd believed had been murdered fifteen years earlier.
"Most of the cultists are locked up," Kane mused. "Though we've been made aware of a few others who weren't there the day the raid went down."
"You know how determined those bastards are." Lucas didn't bother to hide his bitterness. "My sister suffered for years because of them."
"I think I should take her out of here," Kane said. "And quickly."
Lucas stared at him in shock. Of course, Kane had known getting Lucas to accept his plan wasn't going to be easy.
"Hear me out."
After a moment, Lucas finally nodded. His guarded expression made it clear he wasn't happy with the idea.
"You want me to keep her safe." Kane leaned forward. "I can do that. I'm good at my job. But
The word hung in the air. Lucas took a long drink of his beer, waiting for his friend to finish the statement.
"She needs to go into hiding."
"You really think you can protect her better away from here?" The low pitch of Lucas's voice told Kane he recognized the truth, whether or not he liked it.
Grimacing, Lucas gave a reluctant nod. "Where are you planning to take her?"
"I think it's actually better if you don't know."
"Then she's not going anywhere." Lucas's emphatic answer came without hesitation. "I lost her once before. I won't do so again."
This Kane could understand. He nodded. "Fine. I want to take her to my hometown. Leaning Tree, New York."
From Lucas's frown, it was clear he'd never heard of it. This was one of the reasons Kane had chosen the small town. "Is it Pack?"
"Mostly. It's pretty remote, tucked away in the rolling Catskill Mountains. My entire family lives thereparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins." He shrugged. "I haven't been home in a few years. My parents own a resortactually, it's an old-fashioned motor court. With separate cabins. They're pretty secluded and there's only one road in and out. I'm thinking Lilly and I will stay there."
Lucas narrowed his eyes. "You've got this all planned out, don't you?"
"Yes." Kane smiled and then rolled his shoulders, trying to release some of the knots he'd incurred on the long drive northwest. "I'm damn good at what I do. That's why you called me, isn't it?"
Instead of answering, Lucas pushed to his feet. He strode to the doorway and peered out into the den, his expression softening noticeably. "Blythe, could you come here for a minute? I need to get your opinion."
Instantly, Blythe appeared, sweeping her silky, brownish-blond hair away from her face.
"Kane wants to take Lilly away," Lucas said. "He feels he can keep her safer if he does."
Blythe's bright green gaze locked on her husband's as they linked hands. She and Lucas appeared to communicate silently. Watching them, Kane pushed away a sharp stab of envy. Not everyone in the Pack was fortunate enough to find their mate like their wild cousins. Human Shape-shifters only mated once. Kane had been privileged to be present when Lucas and Blythe had realized they were meant for each other. Witnessing this had only increased Kane's intense and private hunger to join with a mate of his own someday.
"How do you feel about that?" Blythe finally asked, a soft frown of worry creasing her smooth brow. Kane noted she didn't ask whether Lucas felt Lilly would be safer somewhere else. She knew her husband well and understood how tightly Lucas wanted to hold on to the sister he'd believed to be dead fifteen years gone. Kane got this, too, but he knew what he wanted to do was ultimately the best way to keep Lilly safe.
Hands linked, Lucas and Blythe turned to face Kane. "Do you promise to keep us in the loop? We want frequent updates, texts and pictures, all of it, you know," Blythe said.
"As much as I can," Kane answered. "As long as it doesn't compromise Lilly's safety."
Still Lucas hadn't spoken. Kane waited, arms crossed. He needed to be sure he had Lucas's 100-percent approval or his plan was a no-go.
Finally, Lucas gave a slow nod. "Fine. Let me get her and we'll tell her now. When do you want to leave?"
"As soon as possible."
Lucas jerked his chin and turned. Blythe's hand on his arm stopped him. "Let me fetch her," she said softly. "You and Kane need to present a united front in this."
Though Lucas nodded, Kane saw Blythe's comment perplexed him. Clearly he hadn't considered the possibility that his sister wouldn't go along with his plans.
A moment later, Blythe returned. Behind her came Lilly, a quiet wraith of a woman, strands of her long, honey-blond hair drifting around her shoulders as she moved. She slipped into the room, the graceful way she seemed to glide making Kane think of a dancer.
"You want me to what?" she said, as soon as Lucas finished explaining to her. Her bright blue eyes appeared to glow in her delicate oval face. "That makes no sense. Why would you think I'd want to take a trip with a man I barely remember?"
That stung, though Kane kept the same pleasant expression he always wore when around her. Since the first time he'd seen Lilly, emaciated and filthy, huddled in a heap of rags in a dark and dank cell, she'd haunted his every thought.