Sweet talkin scoundrel, p.3
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       Sweet Talkin' Scoundrel, p.3

           Tess Oliver
 
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  Kinley looked over at me. “Are you trying to talk me out of this or are you just back to your merciless teasing mode?”

  “Nope, not trying to talk you out of this. No teasing either. Just thought you should know these things. If your family or friends want to reach you, then they’ll have to wait until you’re back in King’s Beach.”

  “My parents are traveling along the Amazon River, so I’m pretty sure they are without technology. And as for my friends—” She stared out the window. “Maybe I’m looking forward to being out of cell phone range,” she said more to herself than to me. “I can’t wait to meet my pupil.” Her tone brightened. “Do you know Rebecca Underwood?”

  “Sure do. Underneath that perpetual clammy mist that shrouds Wildthorne Island there is one ray of sunshine you can count on and that’s Rebecca, or Becky, as she likes to be called. I can honestly say that she’s the one reason I keep Wildthorne on my destination list.”

  “Really? Great. I can’t wait to meet her. I hope she likes me. I’ve heard that I’m tutor number seven. Something tells me this position hinges more on how well they like me than how well I teach algebra.”

  I could have responded but decided my cynical comments were better left unsaid. I’d tried to dissuade her by making sure she understood how remote the island was, but she seemed genuinely excited to start the job. “Something tells me you’ll be a success.”

  The more she relaxed the more she seemed to enjoy the flight. “Guess you’ve got the best ocean view money can buy. It must give you a certain sense of freedom to have your own set of wings.”

  “Don’t think I’d trade in this life for all the gold, mansions and fast cars in the world.”

  When she smiled, two deep dimples formed on her cheeks. As if she needed anything else to be breathtaking. “I noticed you left fast women off that list.”

  “Women fall into a non-negotiable category. Is this your first real adventure, living on a private island? Aside from the whole animal poop for warmth episode.”

  She shook her head. “Nope, not at all. I’ve lived at precisely one hundred and seventy five different sets of coordinates. Name a latitude and chances are I’ve been there.”

  “You’re kidding?”

  “I guess my small panic attack about riding on this plane makes that hard to believe.”

  “Small panic attack? I thought I was going to have to pry you off that seat once we landed.”

  “I don’t know what got into me. I’ve been here in the states for a few years, and I guess I’ve gotten soft and spoiled. My parents are archaeologists. I just happened by accident. My mom blames it on the monsoonal season in India. Apparently, I was conceived after a week stuck inside watching the streets wash away with torrential rains. They’d never planned on a baby, but that didn’t stop me from popping out. So, I traveled with them until I was old enough to tell them I was tired of moving from place to place. Then I met someone . . .” Her words trailed off and she ended with a laugh. “Oh my gosh, I think the altitude is doing something to my head. I’m just blathering on like I’m drunk.”

  “No, it’s interesting. If you traveled all over the map, when did you go to school?”

  “The world was my classroom, and whenever we were close enough to civilization, my parents would hire tutors or enroll me in the local school. It was exciting, but I can’t tell you how often I dreamt of having a couple of close friends and a pinch of normalcy, like a slumber party at a neighbor’s house with pillow fights, popcorn and ghost stories.”

  “Well, you might just be in luck because I know a twelve-year-old girl on that island in the distance who dreams of that stuff too.”

  My mention of the island caused Kinley to stretch up and look out the window.

  The usual crown of clouds was resting on the three highest peaks of the island. They were land formations that fell well short of mountains but that could hardly be referred to as hills.

  “It’s even bigger than I expected. I can see a gray roof through the thin spots on the clouds.”

  “That’s Underwood Manor, an original name if there ever was one.”

  “Manor,” she repeated. “Sounds stately and self-important.”

  “Just like the owner.”

  Kinley rested back. “It sounds as if Mrs. Underwood isn’t high on your most liked people list.”

  “Yeah? What gave it away?”

  “The sneering sound you make when you say her name. Kind of a dead giveaway.”

  I laughed. “We’re going to be landing soon, so be ready. It gets kind of rough on the descent.”

  The first rattle and shake caused Kinley to grip the seat again. She stayed quiet as I dropped Tero through the cloud cover and over to the west side of the island where the landing strip stretched from one end to the other.

  Kinley let out a small gasp as the plane touched down, jostling her around beneath the seatbelt. Waves of relief rolled off of her when we finally came to a stop.

  She took a deep breath. It took a few good swallows before she spoke. “I’m sure it will get much easier once it becomes part of my routine.”

  “With all the traveling you did as a child, you must have been on many planes, including ones like Tero.”

  “You’d think so. But neither of my parents were big on flying. Not so much from fear but because it didn’t give them a chance to experience the culture. We did travel by camel and burro a lot. Just took way longer.”

  “Wild. Sounds pretty damn amazing if you ask me.” I opened my door. “C’mon, I’m giving you the deluxe flight package. I’ll show you the way to the house. Even though it’s easy to spot in the distance, there are only a few paved paths to take you there. Otherwise, you need a machete and some overnight camping gear.”

  Kinley climbed out. She instantly curled her arms around herself for warmth. She squinted up to the gray mist working its hardest to block out any sun. “It must be fifteen degrees colder here.”

  “That’s about right.” I pulled the bags out of the back. “Did you want to look for a coat or sweatshirt?”

  “No, they’re buried deep. I’ll be fine,” she said with the slightest tremble of her chin.

  “Wait—” I returned to the cockpit and pulled my sweatshirt out from behind the seat. I walked over to her.

  What I should have done after that was hand her the sweatshirt, but she looked up at me with those impossibly big eyes and her cute nose had gone pink from the cold and I couldn’t stop myself. I reached around behind her, moving close enough that her warm breath tickled my neck and the scent of her shampoo wafted up from her tawny hair. I took more than my sweet fucking time helping her into the sweatshirt. Having her in my circle of arms sent my pulse racing. It took me plenty of time to recover once the sweatshirt was on, and I had no more excuse for standing so close to her.

  I stepped back, reminding myself why I’d just transported the wide eyed angel to Wildthorne.

  Kinley held out her arms and watched the sleeves drip off the ends of her hands. The sight of the droopy sleeves made her laugh. I wasn’t sure what it was about her laugh, but it wasn’t like any other I’d ever heard. It was like a damn elixir, a tonic to wash away anything ugly in the world, leaving behind only the cool stuff, the stuff that kept you putting your feet on the floor in the morning.

  Kinley pushed the sleeves back so that she could use her hands to push back the caramel colored strands of hair blowing around her face. She scanned the massive clearing. Her gaze landed on the one thing that stood out in the island landscape. “Whose helicopter is that?”

  The decade old Eurocopter had lost most of its shiny white paint. The red stripes that’d stretched around its belly like a belt were long gone. The helicopter looked sad and lonely, but for me, it was a reminder of some of the best times in my life. “It’s just an old
relic that hasn’t been fired up in a long time.”

  I grabbed her bags and looked at her. “Are ya ready, Rabbit?”

  Kinley rolled her eyes at the nickname but this time put up no argument. As insane as it sounded, the nickname had already become important to me.

  I led Kinley toward the sandy path that would eventually lead to the front door and to her new job. And I wondered just how the hell I was going to live with myself for bringing her here. Knowing that Becky was sure to adore her new tutor helped relieve some of the guilt. If only Becky’s education was the real reason behind Kinley’s being hired.

  Chapter 3

  Kinley

  As we neared an area on the island that looked less wild and more like a place inhabited by humans, my stomach slowly started to unknot itself. The bundle of nerves that had made their home in my gut the moment I woke up this morning didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. The more than a little scary plane ride and the pilot that went with it hadn’t helped. I wasn’t completely sure what it was about Dax that put me in somewhat of a twist, and not necessarily a bad twist, but I was sure I’d get over it soon enough. One thing was certain, other than Rebecca Underwood, he had no big love or respect for the people living on the island. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or if my bad case of nerves was just making me see things that weren’t there, but he seemed inexplicably uneasy about leaving me on the island. I brushed it off as my own concern that I wouldn’t be the right person for Rebecca’s tutor, something that made me uneasy as well.

  I was determined to shake loose the tension and make a good impression. I took some slow, deep breaths. The scent of coastal air and lush greenery filled my lungs. It was easy to understand how Wildthorne Island got its rather gothic name. The surrounding landscape, a tangled myriad of vines and green glossy shrubs and ferns that looked as if they’d been taken right out of a prehistoric forest, grew without a plan or direction. And standing tall and picturesque in the low growing foliage were massive trees whose thorn covered trunks made them easy to recognize as silk-floss trees.

  Once again, I found myself having to take exaggerated steps to keep up with my long-legged tour guide who, even carrying my two bags, kept up a brisk pace. Not that I minded the view from behind too much. He was that kind of guy—appealing from every darn angle. And of course he seemed well aware that he had no bad sides.

  As flustered as he’d made me when I first met him in King’s Beach, he’d made up for his terrible teasing with his comforting and reassuring words on the plane. Amusing as it seemed, he wasn’t the kind of guy I would trust with my heart, but by the end of the flight, where he proved to be a capable and confident pilot, I had learned to trust him with my life.

  I hurried to catch up to Dax. “I would never have expected to see silk-floss trees out here in the middle of the north Pacific. I know they thrive best in places like South America. This cold, clammy climate hardly seems ideal and yet they are massive and obviously thriving.”

  “In early spring this island is covered in pink and white blossoms. It’s an awesome sight from the sky. The trees were brought here by the original owners. The wife had insisted on it even though she was told they would never grow. Guess she proved them wrong. Some of the trees are more than sixty years old.” He looked over at me. “You know your trees.”

  “The thorns on their trunks make them easy to recognize.”

  We reached a part of the trail that passed through two large ferns. Dax used his hands and my bags to part the frilly branches and motioned me through with his head. I stepped through the leafy gate, and it was like stepping into another time and place. Chaotic, wild jungle growth was replaced by a well-manicured lawn and neatly trimmed boxwoods. The only reminder of the untamed landscape we’d just passed through was one tall silk-floss tree growing on the left side of a wraparound porch.

  The facade of the manor was made of white brick, and the windows were trimmed with thick, navy blue paint. There were multi-paned windows running along both the top and bottom floors, interrupted only by a massive double mahogany front door on the first floor and a small ornate balcony on the second.

  Almost the moment we stepped onto the oyster shell pathway leading to the marble front steps, the front door swung open. I hoped it would be Rebecca, but a tall, thin man, with dark hair and fair skin that looked as if it rarely saw the light of day, walked out. He stood erect with impressively perfect posture and his black jeans had been ironed with a pleat down the front. There wasn’t even a hint of beard stubble on his chin, even though it was well past five o’clock.

  I glanced over at Dax. In faded jeans and Pterodactyl airlines t-shirt, a shirt that looked as if it had seen more flights than the pilot himself, he stood in stark contrast to the impeccably groomed man walking toward us. There was plenty of black stubble on Dax’s jaw, a jaw that seemed much tighter than it had just moments before. He stopped and didn’t seem inclined to go any farther.

  The man reached us. He was much younger than I’d expected. Something about the way he dressed and moved had made him seem older. His skin was truly pale, but it seemed that was more from lack of sun than any illness. He raised a judgmental brow at the oversized sweatshirt. I quickly removed it. Instantly, the cool air chilled me.

  “Brought you your mail order bride.” Dax’s cold tone and odd, unexpected words pulled my gaze his direction, but he refused to look at me.

  The man’s dark brows knitted together in a scowl. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

  “Anywhere but here sounds good.” Dax placed my bags on the ground. I handed him his sweatshirt as he turned to leave. His dark lashes and the brim of his hat veiled his eyes as he seemed to make a point of avoiding eye contact with me. I had no idea what was going on or why the sudden change in Dax’s demeanor, but as he walked away, I felt this unexplained tug as if he was holding an invisible tether that stretched between us. It was the oddest sensation I’d ever felt, and I couldn’t shake it.

  My feet turned and moved forward before I even realized I was following him.

  “Dax,” I called.

  He stopped and for a moment I was sure he wouldn’t turn back around. When he did, something happened that I hadn’t expected or prepared for. Our gazes locked and that tug I’d felt as I watched him walk away grew stronger. “Thank you.” They were the only words I could utter. My heart was racing fast enough to make my head feel light, and I couldn’t understand any of it.

  “Take care of yourself, Rabbit. I’ll see you soon.”

  I nodded and stayed a few seconds longer to watch him disappear through the ferns. I was hyperaware of the dark eyes watching me from behind. I took a deep, steadying breath and turned back to him. My odd exchange with Dax, an interaction I couldn’t even explain myself, had left the man behind me looking even more stern than before.

  I decided to switch on what my mom referred to as my innate charm. Although I’d always questioned just how innate it could be if I had to actually think about turning it on. I stuck out my hand. “Hello, I’m Kinley Kennedy.” My charm fell flat on its face when he refused to shake my hand. He even went so far as to tuck his well manicured hands behind his back.

  “I’m Marcus Underwood,” he said with polished politeness. His face was handsome in the classical sense, straight nose and square jaw. But there was something entirely lacking in his eyes. They were void of sparkle, like the glint of light I’d caught more than once in Dax’s eyes. “My mother is waiting inside with some refreshments. I’m sure you’re tired from your trip.”

  “I am. Thank you.” His formal vocabulary and manners and the stately manor behind him really did make me feel as if I’d just been transported back to an earlier century.

  I waited for him to pick up the bags, but he turned around and headed back toward the house. Possibly not the manners of an earlier time.

  I picke
d up my belongings and followed. He’d left the front door ajar and used his foot to push it open before standing in front of it to let me pass by. Without looking directly at him, I got the feeling I was being scrutinized. I suddenly became extra self-conscious. After a long day of travel, I didn’t need a mirror to know I looked disheveled. I hoped my new employer would take that into consideration.

  I stepped into the cavernous entryway. The house was decorated in what I would call sparse elegance. There weren’t a lot of fixtures, but the ones that were there looked expensive and as if someone had taken painstaking care to place them in precisely the right location. The entryway itself was mostly white marble with the palest veins of pink running through it. A chandelier that spanned half the plaster ceiling hung over us like a giant glittering bird. Sconces with candles that looked well used lined the walls of the entryway. Dax had mentioned the use of candles at night to save energy.

  “Leave the bags here and I’ll have our housekeeper take them up to your room.” Marcus spoke clearly and with hardly an intonation. A breeze ushered inside, pushing the front door open farther. Marcus stopped it with his shoe and pushed it shut without touching it. “My mother is in the sitting room with coffee and pastries. I know she’s anxious to meet you.” He walked briskly past. I took that as my invitation to follow.

  We walked along a narrow hallway that was lined with sea landscapes done in oil, and while I wasn’t an art expert, they looked original and valuable. On the right, an opened doorway revealed a formal dining room that had ceiling to floor windows running along one side, allowing a stunning view of the ocean. The artwork and furniture inside the room looked old and antique as if it had been purchased from a museum. To add to the museum look, sitting in a glass case between two windows, was a well constructed model of the U.S.S. Constitution. The one thing that was starkly apparent as we walked along a second corridor was that the house was immaculate, or hospital clean as my mom liked to joke when we traded in our tents for an actual motel room with four walls and a ceiling. It looked as if the walls and floors were scrubbed daily and dust was a completely foreign entity.

 
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