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Shadow game (Chapter Eight)

THE wind tore through the trees, bending trunks nearly double, sweeping branches along the ground. The chain-link fence loomed and Ryland leapt up, catching the links, scrambling up and over in one smooth move, landing on his feet in a crouch. He remained low to the ground and silently signaled to the man on his left.

Last man clear.

Raoul "Gator" Fontenot dropped to his belly and scooted along the ground toward the sound of the baying dogs. Telepathy was one of his weakest talents, but he could tune in to animals. It was his job to direct the guard dogs away from the other members of his team. Knife in his teeth, he moved through the grass along the fence line, willing the lightning to stay in the clouds. Too many guards were swarming along their escape route, and even with Ryland's tremendous control, to manipulate all of them was an impossibility. It took a collective effort and, through necessity, they were scattered.

Waves of fear and aggression poured from the guards, compounding the danger to the team. All of them were feeling ill from the tremendous energy being generated.

Coming up on you now, Gator.

Gator glanced back toward Ryland, caught the swirl of his fingers, and nodded in understanding. He transferred the knife to his right hand, blade flat along his wrist to hide the telltale glint of steel, and dropped all the way down on his belly, breathing softly, inaudibly, willing himself to be a part of the earth. The dogs were eager, rushing toward the fence, toward his comrades. The enormity of his task shook him for a moment. He had to lie there in plain sight, trusting his captain to keep the guards looking the other way while he directed the dogs to a false trail. One slipup and they were all dead.

The rain beat down on him, a steady assault. The wind howled and moaned as if alive and protesting the unnaturalness of what they were doing. Of what they were.

Captain. It was the best he could do with his lack of telepathy, a one-word protest against having the lives of so many in his hands.

This is a piece of cake for you, Gator. A pack of hounds dogging our heels is nothing to you. That was Captain Miller, coming through. Gator's stomach settled a bit.

A walk in the park. Kaden threw in his two cents, laughter in his voice, as if he were enjoying the adrenaline rush after their forced confinement. Gator found himself smiling at the thought of Kaden loose on the world.

At once he felt the movement of the others and knew Ryland was so tuned in to him that he was already directing the rest of the team forward. The men would be ghosts moving through the storm, but he couldn't worry about them. And he couldn't worry about being seen or captured. Gator put his fate in the hands of his team leader and narrowed his world to the approaching dogs.

Ryland strained to pierce the dark veil of the rain-swept night, watching for the guards and dogs as their pursuers neared the fence. He trusted Kaden to keep the other men moving. His job was to protect Gator and the two men behind him. Ryland was worried about Jeff Hollister. Hollister was in bad shape, but game enough, struggling not to slow the team. He had barely made it over the high chain-link fence with help from Gator and Ian McGillicuddy. McGillicuddy lay beside Hollister somewhere behind Ryland, holding position to protect the weakest member of his team.

The dogs were acting frenzied now, picking up the scents, rushing toward them. Almost abruptly they stopped, sniffed the ground, turned in circles, not obeying their handlers to move forward. One large shepherd took the lead, swinging south, away from the escaped prisoners. The other dogs rushed to follow, baying loudly.

Gator pressed his throbbing forehead into the soft, wet earth in an effort to alleviate the pain brought on by such intense concentration and use of energy. The fear emanating from the guards was like a disease spreading and infecting everyone it came in contact with. The guards had been told the men were dangerous killers and all of them were extremely nervous.

Mass hysteria. Ryland's voice was soothing in Gator's pounding head. I know you're all comfortable there, but don't go to sleep.

Gator rolled toward Ryland, judging his position and working his way back as soundlessly as he could. The misdirection of the dogs wouldn't hold for long, but it gave them a few more precious minutes to cover their tracks and get to safety.

Ryland reached out and touched Gator to let him know his tremendous effort was appreciated. They began inching their way forward across the open meadow, flanking Hollister and McGillicuddy.

Clear. Kaden reported his group had made it to the other side of the meadow without incident.

Take them forward. We're right behind you. Gator cleared our back trail but it isn't going to last. Ryland was uneasy. He glanced toward Jeff Hollister. The man's face was etched with pain. Even with the black swirling clouds and vicious rain, the darkness of the night, he could see the lines there. Cursing Peter Whitney silently, he slowed the pace even more. The agony in Jeff's head radiated out of him to touch every member of the team. Jeff needed the medication Ryland had ordered them not to take, fearing it was too dangerous. Now he wondered if he had given Hollister a death sentence with that order.

Hang in there, Jeff. You're almost there. I've got meds lined up to help you out.

I'm slowing you down.

Don't communicate! Ryland protested sharply. You can't afford the effort. Ryland feared Jeff would have a seizure if the assault on his brain continued. Unease was growing in him.

Fear for his men, the sudden chilling premonition of danger. Ian? Ian McGilliCuddy was a human antenna for trouble. He could sense danger coming.

Oh yeah, we've got trouble. It's coming fast.

Ryland scuttled forward on his belly, angling once again toward Gator. Move it, Jeff. Get him up, Ian, run flat out toward the cars. Wait no more than five minutes and then get Jeff clear.

We're not leaving you behind. Jeff's voice was unsteady, harsh with pain.

Ryland's heart swelled with pride. Even as ill as Jeff Hollister was, he put the members of the team first. That's an order, Jeff. You and McGillicuddy clear out in five minutes.

Ryland felt it then, the burst of malignant energy pouring over him. Instinctively he rolled to protect Gator, covering the man's back even as he faced upward. His hands met the solid bulk of flesh and blood.

He didn't see the knife so much as he felt it as it came swiftly toward him. It was reflex and training that saved him, his hand closing solidly around his assailant's wrist to control the weapon. Recognition crowded in. Russell Cowlings had come out of the night and attacked them. Ryland rolled away from Gator, taking the heavier man with him. Planting his foot squarely in Cowling's chest, Ryland launched the man over his head.

Cowlings landed with a soft thud, rolled, and came up in a half crouch. Ryland leapt to his feet, his hand slapping away the darting knife as the man came at him a second time. They circled each other cautiously.

"Why, Russell, why would you betray us?"

"You call it betrayal, I call you deserters." Cowlings feinted another attack, threw himself forward when Ryland stepped to the side, going in low and mean, blade up to do the most damage to the soft parts of the body.

Ryland felt the tip of the knife slice his heavy shirt, belly level. He was already whirling around, catching Cowlings's wrist and taking him down so that Cowlings's legs flew up and he landed hard. Counter-moving, Cowlings turned his wrist to get control of the blade of the knife. He yelled as he did so, calling out to the security guards for help.

"Go, Gator, get clear," Ryland ordered as he locked Cowlings's arm, pointing his little finger back behind him so the man's body followed. Cowlings was forced to drop the knife or allow his hand to be broken. The knife dropped to the ground and Ryland kicked it hard, sending the weapon spinning some distance away into the taller grass.

Man down. Jeff is down. He's having a seizure. Ian Hollister reported in his usual calm voice.

"Gator, go," Ryland repeated. Help Ian get Jeff clear.

Cowlings tried to lash out with his legs, scissor-kicking in an attempt to bring Ryland down. "Yeah, send him away," Cowlings spat. "It won't matter, you know, they'll all die."

Ryland moved to the side, planting a vicious back kick squarely on Cowlings's thigh. "Is that what Higgens told you? Is that why you sold us out, Russ? Did Higgens convince you we were going to die?"

Cowlings swore and spat on the ground. He turned his head to glare up at Ryland. "You're just so bullheaded, Rye. What's wrong with using our skills to make money? Do you know what Peter Whitney is worth? What that daughter of his is worth? Why should they get all the money while we take all the risks? The employees at Donovans make more money than we do."

Cowlings came in fast, smashing two hard jabs at Ryland's jaw. Both punches were blocked and Ryland retaliated with a body blow going straight up toward the throat. Cowlings managed to reel backward, barely escaping the lethal attack.

Ryland was aware of the dogs again, the sounds of excited voices getting closer. "This is about money, then, is it? It's about your greed, Cowlings, not death?" Ryland snapped. "You aren't afraid of dying, are you? Why is that? Did Higgens give us all something to cause these seizures?"

Cowlings laughed. "They're all going to die, Miller. Every last one of them. You can't save them and then who is going to be valuable? Higgens will need me."

"You're dancing with the devil, Russ. Do you think the colonel is acting in the best interest of our country? He's selling us out."

"He's smart enough to see that money can be made. You're in the way, Miller, you were from the start with your Boy Scout attitude. Hell, we tried twice to kill you and you just won't die."

"Higgens will get rid of you the minute he doesn't need you."

The sound of the dogs was getting closer. Someone had heard Cowlings yell and had turned the pack around.

"He'll always need me. I can tell him things no one else can. He knows it and he's not going to kill the golden goose."

Ryland moved in fast, using the speed he was known for, a blurring motion of hands and feet, driving Cowlings backward. He didn't feel any of the blows Cowlings managed to land, his adrenaline protecting him. His world had narrowed, focused on his opponent. There were few who could defeat him in hand-to-hand combat. Ryland was in a life-or-death battle. Russell Cowlings wanted him dead.

Cowlings grunted as Ryland landed a round kick to his ribs, smashing into bone. The air whistled out of his lungs and he dropped like a stone, fighting for breath. The security guards and the pack of dogs were already too close, coming toward Ryland at a dead run, with only the fence separating them. Ryland kicked Cowlings hard in the head, hoping to knock him out. He spun around and sprinted across the open meadow away from Gator, Hollister, and McGillicuddy.

Ryland's boots slapped the mud hard, making noise, drawing the attention of the dogs. The animals bayed wildly, dragging at their leashes until their handlers allowed them to slip free. At once the dogs ran to the chain-link fence and began tearing at it in a frenzy. Some dogs tried to leap it, others to climb, still others to dig.

Small circles of light danced and wavered in the sheets of rain, the guards' vain attempt to illuminate the area. Ryland zigzagged across the grass, making more noise so that the guards might hear him even over the loud barking of the dogs. It took a moment for the men to react, but they did as he wanted, running along the fence toward his position and away from his men. As long as they were running parallel with him, no one thought to stop and cut the fence to let the dogs through. It gave Ryland a few more precious minutes to cover more ground so his men had time to get their downed comrade clear.

He was grateful for the strong winds and pouring rain, for the thunder and lightning rocking the skies. It would be a while before a helicopter would be put up in the stormy skies in an attempt to track them. His men would be safely away in the cars Lily had waiting for them. Her security man, Arly, had left the various cars parked at different points at least two miles from the laboratories.

Ryland heard the warning rattle of the fence and turned away from it, sprinting toward the nearest group of buildings. One of the guards snipped the fence, widened the opening to allow the dogs to pour through. They rushed in a pack toward Ryland, eager to hunt their prey. The guards followed, ducking through the fence in hot pursuit.

Ryland's boots smacked the pavement loudly as he raced across the street and leapt up on top of a parked sedan. He jumped, his fingers catching hold on the edge of the eaves of the storefront. It was a poorer section of town and the buildings were old and run-down, but the wood held up as he dragged himself onto the roof.

We're clear. Ian indicated they had located one of the cars and were safely away. We can circle around and pick you up.

Jeff? Ryland wanted medical care for the man as soon as possible. There was no telling what was going on in the over-stimulated brain. He raced across the roof and leapt to the covering of the next building. It was slick from the rain and he slid precariously, fell on his backside just as a barrage of bullets whistled by him.

He needs medical attention. Give us your position.

Ryland crawled across the roof, not taking a chance on skylining himself with trigger-happy guards. If Cowlings was telling the truth and he'd already been a target twice, chances were good the guards had been ordered to shoot to kill. The roof had a door leading to a small stairwell. I'll make it to you. Stay in position. Shots have been fired. Stay out of the area.

The door was locked. Ryland didn't waste time, he simply crawled to the far side of the building and peered over into the street. There was a small overhang to shade the entrance to a store. Ryland dropped onto it, fought for a purchase in the rain-soaked wood, slid a few inches before he caught himself. From there he jumped to the sidewalk. The landing was hard, jarring him.

There was an alley a few feet to his right but he didn't trust that it would bring him to the street he needed. He forced air into his body, slowed his breathing, and melted into the shadow of the building. There was only the sound of the rain as it poured from the skies. The roar of the wind as it showed its fury. Clouds boiled overhead, black cauldrons of spinning dark angry threads spawning veins of lightning arcing from cloud to cloud. Ryland's luck held and the lightning didn't flash close to him, allowing him to slip silently through the street to the corner where the car was waiting with the motor running and the passenger door open.

He leapt into the seat, slamming the door closed as Gator took off so fast they fishtailed in the rain-soaked road. Ryland turned to look at Jeff lying so quiet and pale on the backseat. "Is he alert?"

Ian shook his head. "He's been down since the seizure. Gator and I carried him to the car, but we couldn't bring him around. I hope the lady doctor knows what she's doing or we're going to lose him."

There was silence in the car. Too many had been lost already. None of them knew if it was inevitable or not.

LILY stared out the window as the limousine glided through the rain-wet streets. She'd left her little car in the parking lot and was thankful that John had come to get her. Where was Ryland? Had he made it to the house yet? She felt almost numb with terror for him. She didn't expect to feel this way. She couldn't, think of her father, or the conspiracy. She couldn't think about the other men somewhere out in the ferocious storm fighting their way to freedom. She could only think of him. Ryland Miller.

She ached for him. She closed her eyes and he was there, behind her eyelids, sharing her skin. It was revolting and juvenile and illogical, but none of that mattered. She couldn't force her thoughts away from him. She had to know if he was alive or dead. If he was injured. It frightened her how strong her need was to see him, to touch him, to hear the sound of his voice. She didn't dare reach out to him telepathically, not when the stakes were so high and his total concentration was needed where he was.

The garage door opened smoothly and the limousine rolled into the huge garage. To her relief there were several other cars parked in the garage. For a moment she laid her head against the headrest and let her breath out slowly. The limousine halted and her chauffeur turned off the motor.

"John, thanks for coming to get me in this awful storm. I'm sorry for dragging you out, but I was so tired and I didn't want to stay at Donovans overnight." Nothing could have induced her to stay at the laboratories now that Ryland was no longer there. It was strange, almost terrifying, how bereft she felt.

"I'm glad you called me, Miss Lily. We were all worried about you. Why were there so many guards poking through the car? They've never done that before." The chauffeur turned to look at her with a raised eyebrow, but he refrained from saying a single word about the disappearance and reappearance of storm-drenched cars in their garage.

"I'm sorry, John, it's a classified thing to do with the military." She slid from the car, swaying with weariness. She could hear the wind howling at the doors of the garage and she shivered. "What a ghastly night."

He glared at her as he opened the driver's side door. "You didn't eat today, did you? Not a single thing."

Lily leaned over and kissed the top of his head. "Stop worrying so much about me, John. I'm a sturdy woman, not a delicate waif."

"I have a feeling I'll always worry about you, Lily. This thing with your father… I'm damnably sorry." John shook his head. "I thought he might be found, but he'd never stay away from you this long. And if it was a kidnap for ransom, or even secrets of some kind, we would have heard."

Lily could see the lines of age in his face, the tinge of gray to his coloring. She put her hand on his arm. "I know how much you loved him, John. I'm sorry for both of us." His sorrow was beating at her, profound and deep, slashing at her unprotected mind.

Lily closed her eyes for a moment, worried about Ryland Miller and his men. She wanted to check with Arly and make certain they had arrived and were safe within the thick walls of her home. Compassion welled up as she studied her chauffeur. John suddenly appeared fragile and looked his age. It caught her by surprise. She didn't want to lose John.

"He was my friend, Lily, my family. I knew your father when he was a boy. My father worked for his family. I think I was his only friend growing up in that house. His life was hell in that house. His parents and grandparents had been carrying on some sort of experiment to have a child of great intelligence. He was unloved, merely a product of breeding the right genes. His parents never talked to him unless it was to insist on his studying. He wasn't allowed to play sports or play with toys or even associate with other kids. They wanted a highly developed brain and everything he did even as a child was to that end. And when you"-he hesitated-"came along," he improvised, "Peter vowed he wouldn't be like his parents. I talked to him many times about his absentmindedness. I know it hurt you when he couldn't remember your important events." He shook his head sadly. "He did love you, Lily. For all his strange ways, he did love you very much."

But Peter Whitney had been like his parents. Exactly like his parents. He had followed in their footsteps until something had opened his eyes. Lily put her arms around John as he got out of the car, hugging him. "Does everyone in the household know I'm not his biological daughter?"

John Brimslow stiffened, jerked back to glare down at her. "Who told you that?"

"He did," she said. "In a letter."

He passed his hand over his face, then gripped her arms. "You were everything to Peter." He cleared his throat. "And to me. To all of us. You brought sunshine to us, Lily. Rosa could never have children. Arly dated a multitude of women but he never could tolerate anyone's company but his own for very long. We're a family of misfits, Lily. You've always known about me, I never hid who I am from you. We built the family around you."

Lily smiled at him, grateful for his words. "John, do you know how my father came to adopt me?"

John shifted uncomfortably. "Your father went overseas. Some people might say he bought you, Lily, I don't know how much money was involved, but does that matter now? You didn't have a family and neither did we."

They walked together through the entrance hall leading from the garage to the house, Lily's hand tucked in the crook of John's arm, as he continued, " Rosa was young back then, she barely spoke English, but she was a nurse and she needed a job to stay in the country. Peter snapped her up as your nanny and eventually she ran the house for us." He grinned at her. "She frowned on my lifestyle at first. I had already met Harold by then and we were life partners. Peter never judged me, but Rosa was afraid I would somehow damage you with my perversions."

"John!" Lily protested. "She has never, ever indicated in any way, by word or action, that she disapproved of you. Rosa speaks very highly and affectionately of you."

"That was in the old days when you were just a little thing. She's come to accept me and she nursed Harold devotedly at the end. I don't know what I would have done without her." He patted her hand. "Or you, Lily. I'll never forget you standing next to me at the grave site with your arm around my waist and sobbing right along with me."

"I loved Harold, John. He was as much a part of our family as you and Rosa and Arly. I still miss him, and I know you do too." She stopped walking just outside the kitchen where she knew Rosa was waiting for her. "Have you had a physical recently? I want you to rest and take very good care of yourself. I can't afford to lose anyone else in my family."

He lifted her chin and brushed a kiss over the top of her head. "I'd like you to remember how important you are to us, Lily. You have enough money and a beautiful home, you never have to work if you don't want to. Don't get into whatever Peter was into. I know he was more distracted than usual those last few weeks."

Rosa burst through the kitchen door and flung her arms around Lily. To Lily's horror, she was sobbing. "I paged you over and over, Lily. Why didn't you call me? You didn't say you were going to be late and when I called Donovans they wouldn't tell me anything except there had been trouble."

Lily held her close, astonished that the unflappable Rosa was so distressed over her being late. "I left my pager in my locker. I'm really sorry, Rosa, I should have called you. It was so thoughtless of me."

"The storm was so wild, I thought you must have had an accident." Rosa clung to her, alternating between hugging and patting Lily's back.

"Didn't Arly tell you I asked him to send John for me?" Lily looked up at her chauffeur for help. Rosa was prone to outbursts of temper, chasing people around her kitchen with tea towels, but she never wept as if her heart were breaking.

"When the police didn't call about an accident I was afraid someone had kidnapped you. Oh, Lily." She turned away from the younger woman and covered her face with her hands, sobbing uncontrollably.

John put his arm around her, frowning as he did so. " Rosa, dear, you'll make yourself ill. Sit down, I'll make tea for you." He helped her to the nearest chair.

Rosa put her head down, on the table and continued crying. John put on the kettle to boil water. Lily stood close to the older woman, puzzling over her behavior. " Rosa, I'm perfectly fine. Don't cry anymore. I promise I'll be better about calling you."

Rosa just shook her head. Lily sighed. "John, perhaps I should speak to Rosa alone, do you mind?"

John kissed the top of Rosa 's head. "Don't make yourself sick. It's been a difficult time for all of us."

Lily waited until the kitchen door swung closed. "What is it, Rosa? Tell me."

Rosa continued to shake her head, refusing to look at Lily.

Lily took the time to make the tea, first heating the small pot with a little water from the kettle, then discarding the water before measuring out the tea leaves and pouring on the boiling water to brew. The simple ritual cleared her mind and allowed it to work as it preferred, coming at the puzzle from various angles. She waited for the worst of the storm of tears to pass before placing a teacup in front of Rosa. All the time her mind was working, putting together the fact that Rosa was a nurse and Peter Whitney had brought her into the country.

"Does this have anything to do with the fact that you were my nurse when my father brought me here with all those other little girls?" She asked the question very softly, without inflection, not wanting to sound accusing…

Rosa cried out and stared at Lily in shock. There was guilt in the depths of her eyes. Guilt and sorrow and remorse. "I should never have agreed to do it. I had nowhere to go, Lily, and I loved you so much. I couldn't have children of my own. You have been my daughter."

Lily sat down abruptly. "Why didn't you ever tell me about my father, Rosa? Why didn't you tell me about that horrible room and all those other poor little girls?"

Rosa looked around in fear. "Ssh, never speak of such things. No one can ever know about that room or those poor children. Dr. Whitney should never have told you. It was wrong. He came to see that and he tried to find those girls good homes. What he did was evil, unnatural. His eyes were opened when you were nearly killed."

Lily took a cautious sip of tea. Rosa obviously believed Lily's father had told her everything. "My leg," she said, as she set the cup in the saucer. "I had so many nightmares and Dad would never tell me."

"It was a terrible accident, Lily. Your father was devastated. He promised me he would never make you do anything like that again." Rosa was whispering, obviously fearful of being overheard.

"Did John know about the other girls? Did he know about the experiment?" Lily couldn't look at the woman who had raised her. Couldn't look at the tearstained face, which plainly told her there was so much more she didn't want to hear.

"Oh no, Lily," Rosa protested. "He would have beat Peter within an inch of his life and then he would have quit. Peter needed John to keep him human. Your father only had a few people he allowed into his world. John was a big part of that world. They were boyhood friends and John never minded Peter's eccentric ways."

Lily was watching Rosa 's face closely. "Why are you so upset, Rosa? Tell me. All of this was a long time ago. I would never blame you for something my father did. You're a victim as much as I am."

"I can't tell you, Lily. You'll never forgive me and you're the only family I have. This is my home. John, Arly, you, and your father are my entire world."

Lily reached across the table to take Rosa 's hand. "I love you. Nothing can ever change that. I don't like to see you so upset like this."

"Arly told me someone broke into our house. He said they knew exactly where your office was and where your father's office was. He said they had the house codes." Rosa stared miserably into her teacup.

Lily allowed the breath to leave her lungs in a little rush. She remained silent, simply waiting. Her fingers tightened around Rosa 's hand in reassurance.

"They threatened me Lily. They said they could make me leave the country. They said they could make a problem with my citizenship papers. They said I would never see you again."

"Who told you that?"

"Two men stopped me as I was getting out of my car at the grocery store. They had badges and wore suits."

" Rosa, you know you're independently well off and my money is your money. Our lawyers would never allow anyone to send you away. You've lived in this country for years. You're a citizen, legally here. How could you think we would ever allow you to be taken away?"

"They said they would just take me off the street and send me away and no one would ever know what happened to me. Then they said they could make you disappear, too. I should have told you but I was so afraid. I thought Arly would catch them whether or not they had the codes. He has all those silly gadgets he loves so much."

Rosa had never paid attention to life outside the Whitney home. Coming from a poor background, coupled with the guilt she had always felt over her part in using little children in an experiment, had aided in keeping her segregated from the outside world. "Did you tell them about the laboratory?"

Rosa squeaked in terror. "I never speak of that unholy place. I try to forget it exists. Your father should have destroyed it." She raised her stricken gaze to Lily's. "I'm sorry, Lily. I copied some of your father's papers off his desk. I tried to give them things that didn't matter but I didn't know what was important."

There is a traitor in our house. Lily leaned over and kissed Rosa. "You have no idea what a relief it is to hear this. I knew someone in our home was supplying information and I thought it was a matter of money or politics. These people can't touch you, Rosa." Rosa was no traitor, just a simple frightened woman who had done her best to feed information of little consequence to those threatening her. The relief was overwhelming. "If they contact you again, let me know or tell Arly."

"I don't leave the house anymore, Lily. I have our groceries delivered. I don't want to see these men." She leaned toward Lily, a fresh flood of tears swimming in her eyes. "What if they are the men who made your father disappear? I'm so ashamed of myself. I should have told Arly but I didn't want him to know I even spoke to those men. What if they take you away from me? I'm so afraid."

"No one is going to harm me, Rosa. And if you ever disappeared, I would move heaven and earth to find you. I need to know a few other things about the time when my father first hired you."

Rosa shook her head and clambered to her feet, taking her teacup to the sink. "I don't speak of that time. I won't, Lily."

Lily followed her. "I'm sorry, Rosa, but it isn't just idle curiosity. There are other things going on and I need to find a way to fix them. Please help me."

Rosa crossed herself and turned toward Lily with a helpless sigh. "If we do evil, it will haunt us always. Your father did things that weren't natural and I helped him. No matter what we do now, we have to pay for what we did then. That's all I'll say on the subject. Go to bed, Lily. You look so pale and tired."

" Rosa, what did I do that brought me to Peter Whitney's attention in the first place? What set me apart from the others so much? There must have been others who could do the things I did."

Rosa hung her head. "The things he did were wrong, Lily. I've tried very hard to make up for helping him. I don't want to think about those times."

"Please, Rosa, I need to know."

"Even as an infant you could make things fly in the air. If you wanted your milk and we were too slow you could bring it to you. It is no good to think of these things. We have a good life, long past those times. Go to bed now and sleep."

Rosa kissed Lily and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Lily staring after her. Lily put her head down on the sink and growled in sheer frustration. Rosa had always been stubborn over the strangest things. Pressing her for more information was useless. Lily pushed away from the counter and made her way through the darkened house to the stairway.

Lily wrinkled her nose when she saw Arly waiting for her on the bottom stair. She should have known he'd be there; her family had a tendency to hover.

"I didn't think you'd ever get here. You left me in a mess, Lily."

Lily scowled at the annoyance and accusation in his tone. "Well, I've had a few little problems to deal with tonight, Arly. I'm so sorry if you were inconvenienced and missed your beauty sleep."

"You're in a foul mood tonight."

"Did they make it?"

Arly stood up, towering over her. "Now you want to know. The trouble with women is they never have their priorities in place."

"If you give me any trouble tonight, Arly, I swear I'm going to smash you one. I am not in the mood to pander to your over-inflated ego, soothe your ruffled feathers, or listen to you expound on your pet peeves."

"I always told your father you had such a penchant for violence. Why couldn't you be one of those seen-and-never-heard children?" Arly groused.

"I made up my mind after the first five minutes in your company I was going to be the plague of your life." Lily leaned her head against his chest wearily and looked up at him. "I am, aren't I, Arly?"

He kissed the top of her head then ruffled her hair as if she were still a child. "Yes, Lily, you're definitely the biggest plague of my life." He sighed. "One of the men is in bad shape. They said he had a seizure and all of them are worried about a brain bleed."

Her heart dropped to the floor. Her legs turned to rubber. She clutched at Arly's sleeve. "Who? Who is it?"

He shrugged, his gaze narrowing as her agitation registered. "I don't know, someone they call Jeff. He's out like a light."

Lily breathed a prayer of thanks that it hadn't been Ryland. "Take me to them, Arly and I'll need our medical kit."

"Are you certain about this? If these men are caught here, we could get into a lot of trouble. Are you prepared for that?"

"Are you prepared for the alternative?"

true

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