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Deepest Kiss, Page 2

J. Kenner

I smile back, laughing with my friends. But I can't deny that my stomach is twisting a little. And I'm not sure if it's in longing or fear.

  Or maybe it's just the mimosas.


  The drizzle has turned to full-blown rain by the time everyone gathers on the front porch of my bungalow. The gifts are still inside--we'll deal with those tomorrow, when it's no longer raining--and the whole crew promises to make sure Syl gets home to Jackson safe and sound, with absolutely no slipping on the rain-slicked path as she waddles off to her bungalow.

  "The rest of us are going to head to the club for drinks and dancing," Jamie tells me as the others start down the path. "Why don't you text Damien and tell him to meet you there?"

  I glance at the clock, then shake my head. "His last text said he'd be here by ten at the absolute latest. That's only twenty minutes."

  "And the club is that much closer to the dock and the helipad," she points out. "You want to see him sooner rather than later, right?"

  "What I want is to see him alone," I confide. "Not on a crowded dance floor."

  She sighs and shakes her head in mock disappointment. "And here I thought that being married to Damien Stark had added a little spice to your life."

  I bite my cheek to keep from laughing. Jamie's my best friend, but even she doesn't know just how spicy my life with Damien is. "Just have fun," I say. "And if you and Ryan decide to have too much fun, stick to the adult beach areas, okay? I can't imagine any kids are out in the weather this late, but just in case I'd hate to traumatize them."

  A wide, wicked smile lights her face, and her eyes gleam with devious pleasure. "The beach in a rainstorm. Hmm. That does sound tempting..."

  I can't hold back the laughter anymore. "Go," I say. "Catch up with them. And most of all, have fun."

  She gives me a quick hug, then runs off to do just that. I watch as she heads down the path toward Syl and Jackson's bungalow, where I see the rest of the men emerging and meeting up with the girls so they can all head off to their rooms at the empty bungalows just past Dallas's place.

  I wave at them, then step back inside and close the door. Then I lean against the door, close my eyes, and wish for Damien.

  Unfortunately, I don't have any magical powers, and he doesn't immediately materialize. I check the clock on my cellphone. It's three minutes later than it was the last time I looked. And, hopefully, three minutes closer to Damien.

  Except it's not. Because as I'm looking at the clock, a text message pops across my screen.

  Going to be later than expected. Probably by at least two hours. Damn weather. It's keeping me from you.

  Well, hell.

  I start to type out a long, whiny text, but I rein myself in. He wants to be here with me as much as I want him by my side. So I suck it up and type my reply.

  Miss you. Waiting for you. Hot for you.

  His answer flashes on my screen in seconds.

  Hard for you, baby. Soon.

  I realize I'm smiling, which under the circumstances is good. I want him by me, but if he can't be here, at least I'm not morose.

  I head into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine. I figure I'll spend the two hours between now and Damien watching a movie, and a glass of wine will make the passing time more palatable. Not only that, but the bottle can breathe, and Damien can have a glass when he gets home.

  Except, dammit, we're all out of wine. We're also out of champagne, so no more mimosas for me. The vodka's gone, too--apparently both Evelyn and Lisa have a penchant for Bloody Marys. I still have a tiny amount of gin, which I hate, and scotch, which I love but am really not in the mood for.

  I frown, considering my options. I had a whole scenario starting to play in my head. Two wineglasses on the coffee table, and an open bottle ready for pouring. Candles flickering in the dark room. Me naked under a blanket, and rapidly turning off the television the minute I hear Damien coming up the front steps.

  It's a fantasy that I don't want to abandon. More, it's a fantasy I want to make real. And since I still have almost two hours before Damien will be walking up to the door, I decide to brave the nasty weather and walk down to the little market. It's not far--just past the entrance to this gated area. It serves this quarter of the island and has everything from produce to wine to fine caviar.

  In fact, maybe I should get some caviar...

  I pull on jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, then shove my feet into a pair of canvas sneakers without laces. I have a fisherman-style yellow raincoat that I bought on a whim. It's not as attractive as my London Fog, but it's fun and funky and keeps me dry. I tug it on, then pull the hood over my head. It's late spring, getting close to summer, but it's evening, and there's a chill in the air.

  Once I'm bundled up, I head out. I don't bother locking the door--there's really no point in this restricted area of the island--and if the storm picks up I want to be able to get back inside as quickly as possible. There's both a crushed granite walking path and a paved road that leads out of the gated area. I walk along the path, running my hands lightly over the plants that are taking a battering in the pounding rain.

  My head is mostly down, and I'm walking with my eyes on my shoes more than my surroundings. When I pass through the gate, though, I look up--and then I gasp.

  There's a man. He's across the road wearing a dark trench coat and a low slung fedora-style hat that hides his face in shadows. I can tell nothing about him. Nothing, that is, except that he's looking right at me.

  He's not doing anything sinister. Just standing in the alcove at the front of the now-closed spa. But even so, seeing him makes my skin tingle.

  I realize I've frozen in place. My heart is pounding in my chest, so hard I can hear it in my ears. And my fingers are tight on the gate that I've just pushed through.

  I have no idea why the sight of this man makes me nervous, but I can't deny that my instinct is to go back. To shut the gate behind me, jog to the bungalow, lock the door, and wait for Damien.

  But I'm being silly. I know I am. He's not doing anything remotely freaky. And everyone looks spooky in a rain jacket and fedora if they're hidden in the shadows.

  I take another step--and then stop again. Because maybe my nervous reaction is silly, but it's also genuine. And don't all those self-defense articles and classes tell women to pay attention to their guts?

  And who am I to argue with boatloads of self-help articles?

  So I turn around. Then I push back through the gate, locking it securely behind me. As I do, I glance toward him one more time. But the spot is empty now, and there's no sign of the man. Not in the alcove in front of the spa. Not on the street. Not anywhere.

  I frown, wondering if I'd made him up entirely. I consider going to the store after all, but now all I really want to do is get home and curl up under a blanket. I still have that scotch, after all. And at the moment, it's sounding pretty damn good.

  I hurry back, then burst dripping through the door. I kick off my shoes, then peel myself out of my raincoat and damp sweatshirt, leaving me in only my bra and jeans. I grab a beach towel from a hook by the door and am dabbing my face as I step into the living room.

  And then I stop cold, my heart pounding and my skin clammy.

  The lights are out, but I'd left some faux candles burning, and the flickering light casts wild shadows on the man in a long, dark raincoat standing across the room.

  Oh god, oh god.

  I take an unsteady step backward.

  And when he starts to turn toward me, I open my mouth and scream.

  Chapter 2

  Even before the sound has left my mouth, I realize my mistake. But it's too late to call it back, and I watch as Damien whips around, his eyes alight with a fierce, familiar protectiveness as he searches the room for whatever danger has set me off.

  He's power and strength--and he's at my side even before I clamp my mouth shut, turning my scream into a choked gasp. He grabs my upper arms and pulls me close, and I can feel the tension and fear comin
g off him as he urgently demands, "Nikki, baby. What is it? What's wrong?"

  "I'm sorry--I'm sorry." My words tumble out as I tilt my head back so that I can see his face. His dual-colored eyes are focused intently on me, so full of love and concern that it makes my heart skip. "I didn't mean to scare you."

  I draw a deep breath as he takes his raincoat off and tosses it over the back of one of the chairs. He's wearing a pullover sweater over a plain gray T-shirt, and now he tugs it off and holds it out for me. I slide it on gratefully, welcoming both its softness and the scent of him.

  It calms me immediately, and when he pulls me down to the couch and settles me on his lap, I snuggle close, wishing that I could rewind this evening--even this day--so that Damien never had to go to Santa Barbara in the first place.

  "Go on, baby. Tell me what happened."

  "It's silly," I protest, but I tell him anyway. "I didn't think you were back yet--and when I walked in, with your back to me and the dark, I just--"

  I cut myself off as the full reality hits me. Because for a moment--just a breath, just an instant, but still a moment--I truly didn't realize that the man standing in our bungalow was Damien. That's when I fully comprehend how spooked I'd been by the man in the dark. Because I'm never--never--unaware of Damien. When he's near, I know it. He's my heart, after all. My soul. And there has never been a time when I was in his presence and didn't feel that electricity on my skin, that flutter in my heart.

  Except tonight there was a moment--just a single heartbeat, yes, but still a moment--when I was lost. When I didn't recognize him.

  When I felt alone and unprotected.

  I'd been scared--genuinely scared. And I truly don't understand why.

  I shake it off. "Honestly, it was nothing. I was just spooked. The man--"

  "Man?" Damien's brow is furrowed, his face all hard lines and angles as his raven-black hair gleams in the flickering light. He's in full protection mode now, and I feel his thighs tighten under the denim of his jeans as he moves me off his lap, and then starts to rise. "What fucking man?"

  "I don't know." I feel foolish now, and I want to just erase this whole thing. "Honestly, he didn't do anything. Just stood in the shadows by the spa, probably trying to stay dry. But I was going to the market and I saw him, and in the dark..." I trail off with a shake of my head. "But it's nothing. Really. Just the night and the rain and missing you and--"

  A loud rap on the front door makes me jump, and Damien cocks his head, his eyes narrowing. "Nothing?" he repeats. "Baby, you're like a scared rabbit."

  I drag my fingers through my shoulder-length blond hair. He's right, but I truly don't understand why. After all, the only thing I saw was a man wearing a hat and coat. That's hardly the kind of thing that should spark a moment of terror, much less leave me with a lingering case of the willies.

  "Come on." He slides his hand down my arm, making me feel both centered and safe, and I twine my fingers tightly with his as we go to the door.

  After peering through the peephole, Damien flips the lock. A second later, he opens the door to reveal a damp Dallas Sykes sporting low slung jeans, a rumpled white T-shirt, and sex-mussed hair, which, on Dallas, I'm assuming is the real thing and not just a hairstyle choice. As the heir to the Sykes family fortune and the CEO of the family business, Dallas should be the epitome of old-money responsibility. Instead, he's a gossip magnet. As far as I can tell, if a day goes by without his picture in the tabloids with a different woman at his side, then chances are good the apocalypse is upon us.

  Now, he steps inside the bungalow, his mouth curving into a frown as he speaks to Damien. "I didn't realize you were back." He shifts to look at me. "I wanted to check on Nikki."

  "On me?" I'm completely baffled. "I haven't seen you all night. Why would you need to check on me?"

  He lifts a shoulder as we walk toward the living room. "I spent the evening in the bar with a couple of friends," he says, with the kind of smile that makes clear that these friends are of the female variety. That's when I realize that during the shower Dallas wasn't over at Jackson's bungalow with the rest of the men. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The guys were gathered to support Jackson as the birth of his second child draws near. That's pretty domestic stuff, and Dallas is about the least domestic man I know. For that matter, he may be the least domestic person on the planet.

  Despite his playboy ways, though, I genuinely like the man. He's witty and smart, and from what I've seen he's a loyal friend--as evidenced by the fact that he's in our bungalow right now.

  "When the girls headed back to my bungalow," Dallas continues, "I stayed behind to pick up a few things from the market. Wine. Whipped cream. Some cable ties." His grin is devilish. "The usual."

  I actually blush, which, considering the various things I've done with Damien, is a little ridiculous. Except that we've never used cable ties.

  My blush deepens as I think about the possibilities. And I force myself not to look at Damien, who I'm certain knows where my mind has wandered.

  Damien clears his throat, and Dallas looks appropriately chastised. "Anyway," he continues, "I'd just stepped out of the market when I saw Nikki at the gate. And then I saw the man by the spa watching her."

  "And again I ask, what man?" Damien has lost all patience at this point, and it's easy enough for me to see that he's not only frustrated, but genuinely worried.

  "I don't know," Dallas says. He glances at me as if for help. "You don't know him?"

  I shake my head. "I've never seen him before in my life."

  Dallas's brow furrows as he looks from me to Damien. "You looked scared, so I was concerned. Especially since I'd noticed him watching you earlier."

  "You what?" I'm completely astounded.

  "Some bastard's been stalking my wife?" Damien asks at exactly the same moment.

  "When? When did you see him watching me?"

  "In the restaurant this morning. Well, around eleven, actually. You and Jamie were there for brunch."

  I nod. Jamie and I had walked along the beach, ostensibly because we wanted some exercise, but really because we needed time to catch up and gossip. I've been going a million miles an hour lately as my business has picked up, and now that she's got a steady gig with a local affiliate as an on-air reporter, we haven't had the chance to hang out as much as we'd like.

  We'd walked the entire perimeter of the island, and then ended up at the restaurant, absolutely famished and ready to destroy all the good we did by stuffing ourselves full of fabulously delicious calories.

  Our table was on the patio, and I was seated with my back to the restaurant so that I was facing both Jamie and the ocean. I didn't notice anyone watching me, and since Jamie said nothing, I'm assuming she didn't, either.

  "So who was he? Where was he? I didn't notice anything unusual at all."

  Dallas tilts his head slightly and looks up toward the ceiling as if trying to pull out a memory. "Clean shaven. Early sixties. Brown hair, going gray at the temples. Tan--he spends a lot of time in the sun--but he wears a hat and glasses when he does. Blue eyes--about your color, Nikki, actually."

  I glance over at Damien and see that he is looking at Dallas with as much interest as I am. Considering his reputation as a guy who just floats through life, he's remarkably observant.

  "Khaki shorts," Dallas continues. "A henley style shirt. Started out green, but it's been washed enough it's leaning toward gray. Had a camera bag by his chair. A Billingham. Didn't see the camera itself, but considering how pricey those bags are, my guess is the camera's nice, too. The man spends more on his equipment than his clothes. He was sitting four tables over from me, just inside the restaurant by the French doors. Facing the ocean, so when he looked up he had a good view of you. And he spent a lot of time looking up."

  "That's quite a report," Damien says.

  "I like to watch people." Dallas shrugs, as if his recitation was nothing unusual at all. "I will say he didn't seem dangerous. Not that you can really tell,
but I didn't get a bad vibe. Instead, he just seemed, I don't know, curious, I guess. It wasn't until I saw him later and realized you were spooked that I got concerned. But who knows? Maybe it was a coincidence and he just happened to be standing under an awning to avoid the rain when Nikki came by."

  "Maybe." Damien turns to me. "Did he do something? Say something? What about him scared you?"

  "I really don't know." I grapple for an answer, but find nothing. "Right now I just feel embarrassed. I think it was just the storm. The dark. Missing you."

  Damien nods slowly. "I hope that's all it was, but I'm going to have Ryan see if he can track down the guy's name." Jamie's boyfriend is Stark International's chief of security. "If he's a guest, he probably charged his restaurant bill to his room. If he's not, he may have paid with a credit card. We have security cameras, so we should be able to find him again." He squeezes my hand. "It's probably much ado about nothing, but considering everything..."

  He trails off and I know he's recalling the blackmail attempt made last year around Valentine's Day. We still don't know who was behind that, and though we've had no more threats, every once in a while I recall that someone is out there with a vendetta against us--and that we have no idea when they will strike again.

  "My shadow man might not be a guest," I point out. The restaurant and the north beach are open to the public on weekends, and the identity of guests that come by boat isn't recorded.

  With a quick nod, Damien acknowledges my words. "We'll just have to hope we get lucky." He goes to the bar and grabs the bottle of scotch. "Dallas? You want to stay awhile and have a drink?"

  He looks like he does, but then he shakes his head. "Better not."

  I smile at Dallas as Damien pours drinks for himself and me. "I really appreciate you watching my back."

  "My pleasure." He turns his attention to Damien. "I'm heading to LA tomorrow morning, so I'll see you at our meeting Monday if I don't see you before."

  "Sounds good," Damien says, walking him to the door. When he comes back to me, I'm on the couch, my feet curled up under me.

  "Was it just me, or did it seem like Dallas was less than enthusiastic about going back to his love nest?" I ask.

  "I'm not even remotely interested in any love nest that isn't ours," he says. He kneels in front of me and puts his hands on either side of me, essentially caging me. "Now tell me, Nikki. Why did this guy scare you? What haven't you told me?"