Authors: J.L. Weil
He leaned in, the scent of him a sensory overload. I wanted to press my nose to his neck and inhale a deep, drugging breath. “I wish things were different,” he murmured.
My heart pranced. What was he doing to me? Just a few minutes ago, I had been ready to punch him in the nose. He had done nothing but insult me since we met, but here I was drifting toward him, captured by his crystal eyes and the warmth of his nearness. It didn’t matter that nothing he said made sense. I couldn’t comprehend anyway.
The pad of paper slipped from my grasp, and I bit my lip.
Sweet baby Jesus.
Was he going to kiss me? Was I going to let
kiss me? Did I want Zane to kiss me? The kiss I would never forget. The mere thought of his lips on mine, of him kissing me brainless, because boys like him definitely kissed with fervor, his hands wrapped around my waist…
My gut twisted in a wild need I’d never felt before. He hadn’t even touched me, but his eyes caressed every part of my skin. I held my breath, waiting, poised on the edge of reckless stupidity. I barely knew Zane, yet here I was. He stirred a dark passion I never knew lay inside me, opened my body to world I had never explored, but desperately wanted to. Right here. Right now.
I wanted to close the small distance between us. I wanted to feel the craziness his lips promised. I wanted…
A dog barked.
At first, I thought I’d imagined the sound. It was so faint, hardly heard above the pounding of my heart and the waves lapping and foaming on the shore. Then it came again. And again. Louder. Clearer.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A fluffy, white pup nuzzled its way between us, yapping in excitement.
The spell was broken.
I shook my hair, letting the breeze pick the loose strands off my face. The pooch, oblivious to what she’d interrupted, licked Zane’s face and I about lost it, until I saw the scowl. I was getting quite acquainted with that particular look. He shot to his feet as if he couldn’t wait to get away from me. Standing, I brushed the sand off my shorts and mumbled, “Thanks for the hand, dillweed.”
Zane’s lips curled menacingly. It was infuriating that he constantly seemed to be laughing at me. “I think we can both agree that bad things happen when we touch, Princess.”
What did that even mean? How harmful could the simple gesture of a hand be? It wasn’t like I was asking him to bang me on the beach, well not in words at least. What my body had been begging for moments before was another story. What the hell was wrong with me?
“Oh, I’ll show you bad,” I snapped.
“You should be careful what you say. I wouldn’t want to misconstrue your words.”
A single brow arched. “If you knew what was good for you, you would turn around, walk off the beach, and never look back. You would get off this island before…”
At this point I was too furious to care. Emotions were high, and mine swiftly turned to rage.
Oh, I’ll show him my back all right
. “Kiss ass, Zane. And stay the hell off my beach.”
I thought that was a heck of an exit. Score one for Piper. I gave myself a mental high five as I stomped in the sand. Zane Hunter didn’t have the first clue who he was messing with.
Not even the walk from the beach to the manor did the slightest to cool my temper. Zane Hunter was the most infuriating guy I’d ever met. Just like the million other moments in my life, I wished my mom were here to listen to me vent, offer me advice, or at the very least, make me laugh. I may not be able to make a lick of sense of out guys like Zane, but a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream loaded with all the fixings might help ease my wrath.
It was what Mom would have done, stuffed our faces and made horrible jokes until whatever was bothering me no longer seemed important.
I sighed and made my way down one of the hallways I hoped led to the kitchen. My hunt had barely begun when Rose found me. I cursed under my breath.
To say I wasn’t in the mood was an understatement.
“Piper,” she said. “Just who I was looking for.”
“Oh, goodie,” I mumbled tartly. My rumbling belly was pissed, seeing my calorie indulgence fade from existence.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I know things have been hard…” she started until I slumped against the wall.
Ugh. I didn’t want to have this conversation, not while my emotions were high and close to the surface. It wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge. As silly as it was, I did not want to cry in front of her.
Rose sensed my hesitation and overall indifference to sharing my feelings. I
making it overly obvious. You would have had to be dumb as a rock to not get the message my body was conveying, and Rose struck me as anything but dumb. The old bag was as sharp as a razor. What did she expect? That I just pour my soul out to someone who suddenly decided to pop into my life? If that was the case, she should be talking with TJ. He had inherited my dad’s blabbermouth and sensitive genes; they kind of went hand-in-hand.
I was cautious, guarded, and cynical. “We really don’t have to do this now. Or ever,” I added, pushing off the wall, hoping she would let me go.
Rats. No such luck.
“Since you’ve been here, we haven’t spent any time together,” she said. “I wanted to give you a few days to get settled and explore the island. Now that you have…why don’t we have ourselves a woman-to-woman chat?”
My favorite kind.
Spinning back around to face her, I dragged my butt, following her into the yellow room. I liked to color code each room. It was the only way to keep them straight. The room itself had soft sunny walls and was more of an enclosed porch than a room. Windows lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Transparent white curtains fluttered in the breeze, and the room smelled like sand dollars and seashells.
“Were you just coming in from the beach?” she asked, taking a seat on one of the distressed wicker rockers.
I slunk into its twin, a little square glass table between us. “Yeah. I was hungry.”
She folded her delicate hands in her lap. “Great. I’ll have Annette whip us up something. I’m a little hungry myself.”
Fan-freaking-tastic. Tea and crustless cucumber sandwiches. Just what I wanted. I kissed my ice cream good-bye.
As if her employees had a sick sense about them, Annette walked in carrying a tray of lemonade. She carefully set it down on the table, and Rose asked her to bring in something for us to nibble on. Annette nodded.
Did she just do a small curtsy?
I felt like I was living in the 1940s.
Rose crossed her legs. “How was your trip into town the other day? Did you enjoy the boardwalk?”
I left my lemonade untouched and stared at my sandy feet. “Are you spying on me?”
She reached for one of the clear glasses, her blush-colored nails tapping on the glass. “Now why would you think that?”
I expected her to flinch at my snotty tone. She didn’t. Eventually, I was going to get a rise out of this woman. She was not as easily provoked as Zane, and not nearly as fun.
“Your safety is my main concern,” she added.
“Why wouldn’t I be safe?”
She took a breath and held it. Released. “Until the men responsible for hurting my family are brought to justice, I will make sure nothing happens to you or TJ.”
Finally. Emotion. Anger. That was one I was very, very familiar with. Yet, I had to wonder if she knew something I didn’t? Were TJ and I in danger? “Have you heard from my dad?” I tried to keep the hopefulness out of my tone. But failed. Maybe he had called with information about Mom’s case. It had gone cold, but…
Her emerald eyes softened. “No. I am sure he is carried away in his art.”
My heart sunk. No matter how many times I told myself that I’d hardened my heart against disappointment, against hope, it struck back like a venomous viper. “Why did she leave here?” I blurted. Let’s get to the heavy stuff. Why stop, when we were on a roll?
There was a soft rap on the door. Annette strolled in with a tray of fruit kabobs, pretzels, and beer dip. My taste buds danced. This was my kind of “tea time.” It was more tailgate than tea party.
Rose smiled. “What were you expecting? Cucumber sandwiches?”
Bull’s-eye. “Sort of,” I admitted, popping a pretzel in my mouth.
“You remind me so much of her. Your spunkiness. Your fearlessness. Your recklessness. And your appetite. I bet she was so proud of you.” Her chest rose in a deep sigh, and there was a glint of regret in her eyes. Unexpected. “Your mom did not want the responsibility and the stress that came with her name. Being a Morain comes with a price. Letting her leave was the second hardest thing I’d ever had to experience.”
I assumed her death was the first. It was for me. The single worst day of my life, and I still lived through the pain every day. “You never answered my question. Why did you let her go then?”
Rose might be old, but her skin still had this beautiful glow about it, almost unearthly. Her eyes held a sad smile. “For love. What else?”
The stick of strawberries and bananas was suspended halfway to my mouth. “My dad.”
She gave a slight nod of her head, her white hair falling over one shoulder. “I always thought she would be back one day. How wrong I was. Never did I imagine the last time we said good-bye it would be forever.”
There was pain inside her, hidden behind a tough wall, but it was there nonetheless. I didn’t know how I felt sharing the loss of my mother with her. We had more in common than I thought. We had both thought we would see her again, only to have that chance stripped from us by a couple of ass-faces. “Life’s a bitch.”
Rose gave a sophisticated chuckle. “That it is.” She plucked a kabob of fruit. “Well, this turned into a much heavier discussion than I had planned, but I guess with both needed it.”
I still ached, and no amount of beer dip was going to help, but it didn’t stop me from popping pretzels like crack. “I guess,” I agreed, still uncertain what had happened. On one hand, misery loved company. On the other, it felt sort of fake. I didn’t trust Rose, and my gut instinct told me there were things she was hiding from me.
And I wanted the truth.
“You’ll be the matriarch of this family someday, Piper.”
“Matriarch? What is this, a feminist protest?”
“The females in our family have run things for generations. It isn’t to be taken lightly. Like I said, there is a great amount of responsibility that will be yours,” she informed me.
My ears perked up. I wasn’t a fan of responsibility. “Like what?” Let it be known, that no one even asked me. She just assumed I would take her place. Boy, was she in for a rude awakening. I had plans for my future that did not include slumming it in this mansion.
She set aside her half-drunk lemonade, her sharp eyes on mine. “You will learn soon enough, when you’ve had time to get adjusted.”
Hmm. I pursed my lips, unhappily. Patience was not one of my virtues. Neither was doing as I was told.
Uncrossing her legs, she stood up. “I’ll see you tonight. Chef is making a special dinner. TJ’s request.”
“Great,” I grumbled, slouching into the back of the wicker chair. “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Can’t wait.”
Her lips lifted. “You know your brother well.”
After a riveting dinner, complete with a meal I barely managed to swallow, in a dining room that couldn’t have felt emptier, I retreated to my suite. The air was easier to breathe as soon as I walked in, surrounded by things that were mine.
I ignored the unmade bed. Why make it when you were just going to mess it up again? Clutter never bothered me. It meant I was christening the room as my own, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted, to be comfortable here, which only furthered my bitchy mood. Without a second thought, I closed myself into the mammoth bathroom.
As I walked passed the mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself, the soft light from the chandelier catching the glittery pink of my tiny nose ring. Look at me. Unbelievable. A few days away from my life and already I could see the changes. It wasn’t my outer appearance, but what was inside that was changing. I twirled the little stone on the right side of my nose.
I am still me
What I needed was a hot, steaming shower to loosen my tense muscles. I stepped directly under the waterfall spray, letting the beads of water rain down my upturned face. Time ceased. Even after the water began to run cold, I didn’t want to leave. Pink-skinned and polished to a shine with some French soaps, I turned the water off and slid the glass door open. The entire bathroom was filled with the mist of steam. There was a white terry cloth robe hanging on a hook just to the right of the shower. I hadn’t noticed it before. My fingers touch the material. Not just terry cloth, but something silkier. Three violet letters were stitched at the breast. P.L.B. Those were my initials. Piper Lynn Brennan.
I didn’t know whether to be touched or creeped out.
A robe seemed personal, almost like buying me panties, but it didn’t stop me from slipping the cloud of fluff on my skin. The indulgent material quickly absorbed droplets of water. After I braided my damp hair, brushed my teeth, and put some moisturizing gunk on my face, I curled up on the bed. Tugging the covers to my chin, I lay there trying to get snuggly, but the sheer size of the room made it nearly impossible to have that cozy feeling. There was too much space with me in the bed. My back wasn’t butted up to the wall. It felt more like sleeping in a hotel. I stuffed the extra pillows alongside me, cocooning me. Then I wiggled to get comfortable and closed my eyes.
It didn’t help.
My mind wandered as it often did when I was alone with nothing but my thoughts. Why couldn’t I be one of those people who dropped off to sleep the moment their head hit the pillow? I was restless, and this time I knew whom to blame.
Thank you, Zane.
Never had I been so boy-crazed. There was something about this particular guy that drew me in. I was attracted to him, but I didn’t want to be. He was pigheaded. Deplorable. Arrogant. Disreputable.
While counting all of Zane’s flaws, and there were many, I drifted off to sleep.
It was pitch black, and for a moment I didn’t know if I had opened my eyes or not. A dark whisper called my name.
“Zane.” His name tumbled from my lips.
The balcony door was open, white lace curtains dancing with the whistling winds. My eyes darted over the room, searching the shadows for movement, a burglary, or the boogieman. That door had been firmly shut when I had gone to bed. I was sure of it.
I don’t know how long I lay there with my heart in my throat, just waiting to switch into ninja mode. When nothing jumped out at me, I slowly swung my feet over the side of the bed. As I padded over the cool tiles toward the open door, a familiar scent tickled my nose—fresh rain and a hint of mint, a refreshing combo. My feet moved soundlessly, only murmurs of the balmy wind and the swishing of the tide.
But I swore I had heard my name.
Under the twinkling stars, I looked out over the grounds, nightfall blanketing as far as I could see. Through the darkness, a speck of winter blue stood out.
I stumbled, and that was all it took for the little light to vanish. My eyes scrambled to find a trace as I refused to believe I was imagining things. I gripped the doorway for support, the thundering of my heart throttling in my chest. The second I felt a tingle crawl down my back, I closed the door, bolted the lock, and drew the curtains shut.
Sleep was out of the question.