Stolen Kisses

By: Ruth Cardello

Chapter One

With her high heels swinging from one hand and a half empty bottle of rum from the other, Kenzi Barrington walked along an empty stretch of her favorite Bahamian island beach. The warm sand was a familiar comfort. Music blared from the nearby hotel pool area, but that wasn’t what stopped Kenzi from finding peace that night.

She raised the bottle to her lips and took another long gulp. She sought numbness. Distance. Denial. The fruity drinks the bar served had no kick so she’d bribed the bartender for a bottle of her own and left.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a man in a dark suit, watching her from a path beside the beach. His face was darkened in shadow, but the breadth of his shoulders and his impressive height left little question about why he was following her: Her family had sent a bodyguard, even though she’d told them she didn’t want one. As the youngest of seven, six of whom were unfortunately brothers, she was used to no one respecting her wishes.

How did I ever think they would let me do a reality show? They’ve never let me do anything. Disappointment sucker-punched her as she remembered the final conversation she’d had with the Hollywood producer. He’d been interested in the idea she’d pitched, interested enough to draw up the contracts for her to read over. Then, at their last meeting, he’d announced he wasn’t moving forward with the project. Suddenly, just like every other opportunity or idea she’d ever had, it had been shut down.

Why did I let myself believe this time would be different? Although being followed around by cameras and letting the world see her day-to-day life should have been scary, Kenzi thought it could free her. Force me to face what I can no longer deny.

Does it matter? It’s not happening.

When the producer slipped up and said he couldn’t meet with her again, Kenzi had instantly been suspicious. Couldn’t? As in, been warned not to?

Although the producer had denied it, the truth had been there in his cautious eyes. He’d been scared. She’d seen the look before. Her brothers plowed over people, silenced those who opposed them, and crushed scandals before they went public. Maybe stopping me is for the best, too.

But my silence should be my choice.

She knew she wasn’t making sense anymore, but the alcohol fueled her anger toward her brothers. Kenzi raised the bottle in salute to the bodyguard then dropped her shoes into the sand. After one final swig, she dropped the bottle beside her shoes and glared at the man who hadn’t moved. She could feel his eyes on her, and her hands clenched at her sides. Like thoughts of her family, his presence held her back from enjoying the novelty of a strong buzz. Instead of the giddy oblivion she’d sought, she felt raw, cornered. Watched. Always watched, but never heard. She wanted to sink to her knees in the sand and cry. Instead, she called out, “Tell my family you couldn’t find me, or say you saw me go into my hotel room. Go away. I want to be alone.”

His rigid outline stood in quiet judgment of her, and she hated him for it. Hated feeling like, even here at her island escape, she was being controlled. An impulse to defy him made her turn toward the waves. She would disappear into the darkness and lose herself in her exercise of choice. She shed her dress in one swift move, without embarrassment; her navy-blue bra and panties covered more than many bikinis anyway. She was ankle-deep in the water when a strong hand closed over her arm and hauled her back two steps then swung her around.

“Whatever you’re running from, killing yourself isn’t the answer,” the bodyguard said impatiently, with a hint of an English accent.

Kenzi tried to yank her arm free, but he held her easily. She turned angry eyes toward his face, and her next words died on her lips. He was an attractive man but not in a male-model way. His features were harsh; his nose was slightly crooked as if it had been broken once or twice. He wasn’t at all what Kenzi would have said was her taste. The men she dated took as long styling their hair as she did. This was a man. Her heart beat wildly in her chest. Nothing about his expression hinted he might be attracted to her, yet her stomach quivered with excitement. She dismissed the temporary insanity of her libido as a result of too much rum. She hoped she sounded angry instead of breathless when she said, “I am an excellent swimmer. And I don’t appreciate being manhandled.” Even to her own ears, her voice sounded slurred.

He dropped his hand from her arm. “You’re drunk, and I don’t have time for the police investigation that will follow your body being washed up on the shore tomorrow morning.” He gave her a slow once-over then bent to pick up her dress. He threw it at her. “Get dressed. I’m walking you back to the hotel.”

Kenzi clenched her dress in front her. “No.” It was hard to deny her level of inebriation as she swayed. Okay, so swimming might have been a bad idea, but did he have to speak to her like she was a child?

A hint of a smile stretched one side of his amazing lips. “Don’t test me on this.”

It was surprisingly exciting to defy him, and that feeling was preferable to the many dark emotions swirling through her. She let herself imagine how his mouth would feel on hers and licked her bottom lip as she stared at his. “I’m not testing you. I’m telling you I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t care who hired you or how much they’re paying you. I don’t need you.” Well, not in any way I can say. Would a night in his arms achieve what neither the beach nor the rum had? Would it free her, if only for a short time? Stupid. Stupid idea. One-night stands hadn’t helped her feel better in the past, adding another to her list wouldn’t now. Maybe this is exactly what I deserve. No. Stop thinking like that. I am not the person I almost became. “Please, go find someone else to protect.”

She backed up a step and turned away, but tripped over her shoes and face-planted in the sand. She raised herself onto her hands and spat out the sand that had flown into her mouth.

He hauled her back to her feet. “Are you—?”

In her impaired state, that’s all it took for an old memory, one she’d tried so many times to wipe away, to blur the present with the past. He was no longer the alluring bodyguard ruining her attempt to find peace. There was no longer anything sexy about teasing him. He was another man in another time, who was holding her, and she couldn’t get away. Shame. Rage. Adrenaline rushed in as it had so many times she’d tried to be intimate with a man. Alcohol wasn’t as effective at numbing her as the drugs she’d used in the past. It only gave more life to her panic when it came. When she struggled to free herself, he clamped another hand on her other arm, and she lost all control. She started to flail wildly, kicking at him with desperation. “Don’t touch me!” she cried out, but her warning was garbled as the rum took full effect.

He held her against him and said, “What the bloody hell is wrong with you? I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to help.”

It might have been the authoritative tone he used, or maybe the way he was calm despite her hysteria, that brought her back to the present. The shame she’d spent half her life running from followed. She shook her head back and forth, and his face blurred behind tears she only let herself shed here on this island or on stage when the emotion could be passed off as someone else’s. “Just leave me alone. Walk away.”

“Trust me, if I could, I would.” His voice was harsh, but his hold on her gentled. He was still holding her against him, but suddenly it was different. There was protectiveness in his embrace that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Who are you?”

Her eyes flew to his. She impatiently wiped away her tears. “I don’t understand. You know who I am.”

His hold on her loosened, and he searched her face. “No, I don’t.”

She sniffed. Why would he lie? “Asher didn’t send you? Or Ian?” He shook his head once, abruptly. She looked at him and a horrifying thought came to her. For security, he was wearing a very expensive suit. “You’re not a bodyguard, are you?”

His silence was answer enough.

She covered her face with one hand, even though it made her head spin. “I’m sorry. I thought my brothers had hired you.” She opened her eyes and stepped back from him. This time he let her go. She stumbled then righted herself, avoiding the hand he held out to steady her. “I should have stuck with the fruity drinks.”

Somehow he had her dress over her head and on her before she could protest. He picked up her shoes and took her elbow in one hand. “I’ll walk you back.”

She almost said she was fine, but she had the feeling he would do exactly as he pleased, regardless of what she said. As they walked together, she said, “I don’t drink anymore.” Her voice caught in her throat as the emotion from earlier threatened to resurface. She didn’t lose control, didn’t put herself in dangerous situations—not anymore.

In the harsh tone he’d used earlier, he said, “I don’t care, so you don’t have to lie to me.”

“I’m not lying.” She stumbled again as she walked. A glance at him revealed he clearly didn’t believe her. She wanted to tell him his opinion of her didn’t matter, but her mouth suddenly went dry and her stomach churned in warning. She paused and wrapped an arm around a palm tree.

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