Two years ago…
Kinsey was running late as she wrestled her cello case into the house while waving bye to Lila and the other girls in her BFF’s car. She wondered if her parents would even notice she was coming in later than usual but almost laughed aloud at the thought. They probably weren’t even home.
She lugged her case through the foyer and toward the stairs. She was poised to take the first step when she heard her father clear his throat behind her. She turned, positive he wouldn’t even ask why she was late. Not that it was anything nefarious. They had simply decided to go for coffee after orchestra practice and lost track of time. “Hey.” She stiffened when she noticed her father had company. She tried to paste on a smile that felt wobbly but couldn’t bring herself to quite look at him.
“Come join us for dinner, Kinsey.” Her father gave her a smile that seemed as forced as her own.
“Is Mom home?” She asked the question because it was expected, and she wanted to ascertain who was “us,” not because she cared to spend time with her mother.
“No. It’s just us. This is an…associate of mine, Kinsey. Ronan Courtland, meet Kinsey, my daughter. She’s eighteen.”
Kinsey swallowed when Ronan moved closer, seeming to swallow all her space, though he only took a couple of steps. She plastered on a smile again and held out her hand. She expected a perfunctory shake, but he engulfed her palm with his, underscoring how large his hands were. The nails were neatly trimmed and buffed. The skin was mostly smooth, but with a rough patch here and there. She swore he held her hand so tightly for a moment that the whorls of his fingerprints imprinted into her skin.
She breathed a sigh of relief when he let go. “I have to practice.” She nodded toward the cello.
“Dinner first,” said Harvey in an insistent tone.
“I’m not really hungry…” Her stomach rumbled, and she trailed off. She couldn’t admit she didn’t want to join her father and his guest because his guest unnerved her, so she forced another smile. “Let me secure the cello, and I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
“Allow me to assist you.” Before she could refuse, Ronan’s lean fingers wrapped around the case and lifted it seemingly without effort.
That shouldn’t surprise her. Even in a handsomely tailored dark suit, she could see he had a large, muscular frame. For a moment, she imagined what he’d be like without a shirt before forcing her thoughts to veer quickly from that territory. “You don’t have to, Mr. Courtland.”
“Call me Ronan, and it’s a pleasure.” He gestured with his free hand. “Show me the way?”
She nodded, out of polite reasons to refuse, and bounded up the steps. She still wore the skirt that was part of her school uniform, and while it was modest, she had the paranoid fear he was seeing her panties with every step. Since they were demure white and plain cotton, they were hardly likely to even catch his attention, let alone drive him wild with lust.
The thought of him being wild with lust made her shudder, and fear surged in her. She hastened her step and led him to the music room, where she usually kept her cello and practiced. “You can set it here.” After he’d done so, she said, “Thanks.”
He looked around the room. “There are a lot of instruments. Do you play them all?”
She blinked and then shook her head. “No, not at all. My mother collects them. She thinks they’re sophisticated.” She rolled her eyes. “I just play cello. That’s my instrument, though I can play guitar and violin. I’ve dabbled with the harp and mangled the ivories.”
He gave her a mysterious smile. “I’d like to hear you play for me some day.”
“Of course.” It was a polite response and the expected one, but she couldn’t fathom doing so. When she played, she opened herself to the music and poured her heart into it. It was akin to performing naked in an emotional sense. Being naked in front of him held no appeal.
Except her stomach tightened, and her breath hitched for a moment as she imagined it. She told herself it was just panic. “I’m going to change before dinner. Do you remember the way back to the dining room?”
He nodded and left the music room without another word. Only then did she let out a ragged exhalation and draw in a cleansing breath. His scent lingered, and the mingled aroma of citrus and sandalwood burned into her olfactory memory. She would never forget that smell. It wasn’t particularly unique, except for his own scent. That was what made it memorable.
Realizing time was ticking away, she hurried to her bedroom to remove the uniform and don leggings and an oversized sweatshirt. It might be too warm for the shirt, but it felt like girding herself with armor.
When she had no further excuse to avoid joining them, she left her room and returned downstairs. She heard their voices from the dining room and joined them. Ronan stood for her and pushed in her seat, treating her like she was a woman. She appreciated the gesture, but his hand brushed across the back of her neck, lingering a bit too long, and she tensed until he finally moved away.
Consuela had made one of her signature dishes, and Kinsey almost moaned in delight to see the seafood alfredo. It was one of her favorites, but Consuela rarely dared serve it when Celeste was home, since Celeste wouldn’t touch carbs. Even worse, she made it a miserable experience if Kinsey dared have a serving. She worried about Kinsey’s figure, but she could afford the occasional indulgence. She had a slender frame with nice curves, but she didn’t have any trouble with keeping off excess pounds. Celeste probably just enjoyed having another reason to criticize her.
“You’re in school, Kinsey?” asked Ronan as he accepted a glass of wine from Harvey.
She nodded, sipping her sparkling water. Not that she cared much about drinking. “At Harwood Academy.”
He nodded. “I believe that’s quite exclusive.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe. I’m there for the arts program. That’s all I know.”
“Do you intend to play cello professionally?”
“I do.” She paused to enjoy a bite of crab melding perfectly with the alfredo sauce. “I can’t imagine anything more important or fulfilling.”
“Perhaps you’ll find something you love more.” He suggested it lightly, but there was an unnerving intensity in his gaze.
She managed to meet his gaze, drawing in a deep breath at the whiskey-brown of his eyes, rimmed by a faint ring of brownish-green. They were stunning and an unexpected contrast to his classically handsome features. Kinsey cleared her throat to refocus. “There’s nothing more important to me.” How could she explain the way playing lit her up inside and made her feel alive? How it blocked the hurts of having neglectful and uninterested parents? How everything made sense when she held the bow, which was so different from the kaleidoscope of her everyday life? He would never understand. “It’s my passion.” The simple explanation would suffice.
He nodded. “I understand. Passions lead us, sometimes down the wrong path.” He flashed a grin that seemed to be encouraging such a detour rather than warning her away from it.
She sipped her water and avoided answering. She tried to fade into obscurity, but Ronan seemed determined to draw her into conversation. He was Harvey’s guest, but it was like he was there just to see her. She managed to answer his questions and conquer some of her shyness by the time the meal concluded.
“Would you get the dessert, Kinsey?” asked Harvey.
“None for me,” said Ronan.
Kinsey looked at him. “You don’t like sweet things?”
His eyes sparkled, and there was an enigmatic expression she couldn’t decipher. “I love sweet things, but they never stay sweet for long.”
“So, you don’t bother with them?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Only for the very special sweet.”
He was so cryptic. She shrugged. “I don’t want dessert either. Should I get something for you, Dad?”
Harvey waved a hand. “No, don’t bother. Why don’t you run along, Kinsey? We have business to discuss.” Her father was sweating profusely, and he dabbed at his forehead with the fine linen napkin.
She could imagine how Celeste would react to sweat on the expensive linen and stifled a grin. She got to her feet and headed toward the stairs. She was almost to them when Ronan put a hand on her shoulder. She froze, and her skin prickled where he touched her. Hesitantly, she turned her head to glance up at him. “Yes?”
“It was nice to meet you. I look forward to seeing you again.” There was more of a threat than a promise in his tone.
She nodded as a shiver went down her spine. “Good night.” She rushed up the stairs then, not caring if she appeared rude. She had to get away from him. He put her on edge and left her confused and afraid. She couldn’t wait to escape him and put him out of her mind.
So, it made no sense that she couldn’t concentrate on her homework a bit later. She kept thinking about him, imagining his lean fingers. At first, she saw them moving tenderly over the strings of a cello—her cello. The wood morphed to flesh, and it was hers. She moaned and shook her head, trying to clear the thought.
As she focused on the equation in front of her, she could feel his phantom fingers sliding up her back. She turned her head, honestly expecting someone to be there, but she was alone. It just felt so real. Something about him inspired explicit thoughts.
She leaned back in her office chair, picturing him looming over her and pulling her back so he could kiss her. Their mouths would be upside down to each other, and she could feel his lower lip brushing against her nose as she closed her eyes.
The kiss started out vague and tender, much like the couple she’d had in her life, but without the awkwardness or gross taste of someone else’s tongue. Ronan kissed like a man who knew what he was doing, and the fantasy her appreciated that.
Her nipples beaded in the sweatshirt, and her panties grew damp. She leaned back, letting her thoughts wander, and slid her hand into the waistband of her pants. She was lost in the intense fantasy kiss, so it was a shock when her dream lover dragged her out of the chair and to the bed. She remained in her office chair, but she could see the scene playing out in her mind’s eye…