The lights were off. Candlelight danced over the wine bottle on the small table set up in the living room. Soft music floated from a speaker. Mari tipped her head back to smile at Tyler.
“This is a very good start,” she murmured appreciatively.
“I’m glad you agree.” Setting her bag down on the couch, he took her hand and escorted her to the table. “I’m finishing up dinner. In the meantime, I want you to sit down and relax.”
“I can keep you company in the kitchen.”
He shook his head. “I want you to get relaxed.”
Once she was seated, he poured a glass of wine. No sooner than she accepted it, he knelt before her. She watched in surprise as he removed her shoes. He set them off to the side and straightened again.
“Relax,” he repeated with a kiss to her forehead.
“You’re making it very hard not to.”
He flashed his crooked grin and walked away. Mari relaxed into the chair and sipped at the wine with a small smile. Tyler had gone through a lot of effort in a short amount of time. He was often thoughtful, but this was especially romantic. She hummed along to the music gracing her ears. The lighting, the wine, and the music combined for a seductive lull that stole any tension or stress.
When Tyler returned to the living room with plates in hand, she made to rise and help him. A perfectly arched brow dissuaded her of that notion. She leaned back in the chair and watched him set the plates on the table.
“You’re having trouble with relaxing, I see.”
“I’m really not. Or at least I wasn’t until you came back in,” she teased.
He settled in across from her and topped off her glass. She beamed at him and dug into her plate with gusto. Music wafted between them while they ate and Mari shared her day.
It wasn’t until her third glass was emptied and her plate nearly cleared that Tyler grew serious.
“We said we were going to clear the air about this situation with Blake. I want to do that so we can enjoy the rest of our night together.”
“I like that idea.”
“Right now, we’re just monitoring him. I know this is new to you, but a lot of things like this are mostly hurry-up-and-wait. We have to watch, collect information. That takes time. You hesitated to agree to this, but we’ve been rebuilding trust. You were willing to follow my lead and now that’s changed.”
He held up a hand when she started to interject. “I get meeting him and spending time with him changed things for you. No matter what we find out, he’s your father. You feel guilty don’t you?” he prodded gently.
She ducked her head and focused on scooping together the last of her rice. “Like you said, he’s my father. If he’s… If you’re right, then there needs to be justice. It’s just playing a part in it myself while he thinks we’re just getting to know each other…”
“I get it,” he repeated. “Why don’t we make a deal? Before I do anything with the information I learn, I’ll share it with you. That way you can relax and not worry something will sneak up on you.”
Her mouth twisted in a slight frown. “You’d really tell me?”
He reached across the table to cover one of her hands with his. “I would because I don’t want to jeopardize us. But I need you to understand that when I do tell you, it’ll be at a time and in a way you can’t share that information. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I have to do my job and I really shouldn’t be telling you anything.”
Turning her hand over in his, she laced their fingers together. “Deal.”
His smile was blinding, hidden only when he lifted their hands to his lips for a kiss. “Good, now that’s enough of that. Do you know how bad Leo messed with me when I asked for this recipe?”
Mari dropped her head as her laughter spilled free.
“The things I do for you, woman.”
“I promise I’m properly appreciative.”
“Are you?” he asked teasingly as he pushed back from the table. He offered his hand to her. “Prove it.”
Grinning, she took his hand and let him pull her into his chest. He slid an arm around her to press gently into her back. With her cheek pressed against his shoulder, she let her eyes close. She loved the way he held her in the sway of their dance.
A delicious shiver ran through her as he caressed her back. He untangled one hand from hers and his fingers brushed her jaw. She lifted her head and met his hungry gaze. She didn’t wait. Rising on the tips of her toes, she took his mouth in a hard kiss. His groan sent a thrill racing through her. She cupped his neck and deepened the kiss. He yanked her tight against him, taking over. Minutes later, he was backing her toward the bedroom to finish their night.
Mari adjusted her bag on her shoulder while she stood on the porch waiting for Reese to complete his walk-through of the house. They’d had a great day of tours, but she was ready to wind down. No matter how many walk-throughs he did, he never found anything. She didn’t expect today to be any different.
From inside, she heard the distinct ringing of the phone Blake left her. Only knowing Reese would immediately lose all friendliness if she went in before he cleared the house kept her outside waiting.
He met her at the door a few moments later, holding out the ringing phone. She smiled and quickly answered it.
“My Mari. How are things on the island?”
“We’re living the life over here. We just got back from work. Work being hiking and scuba diving for a few hours. I could eat an octopus.”
Blake chuckled as she dropped her bag by the door and kicked off her shoes. “You have the better end of the deal, that’s for sure. Appetite and all, except maybe hold off on the octopus.”
“That’s the best part.” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s good to hear from you,” she confessed dropping onto the couch. It wasn’t the first time he’d called since he left, but he sounded more relaxed.
“I’m glad you feel that way, but I’m feeling jealous. Reese tells me you all threw a nice welcome party for him. If you keep it up, he’s not going to want to come home and then what am I going to do?”
Mari laughed and kicked her sock-covered feet up on the arm of the sofa as she stretched out. “I had nothing to do with that. I was just along for the ride. It was one heck of a party, though. We’ll have to throw you one when you come back.”
“From what I hear, I’d be a fool to turn down that offer. I know it probably hasn’t been comfortable having someone you don’t know constantly in your space, but it’s made it easier not to worry as much.”
Mari lifted her head in an attempt to catch sight of Reese who was making noise in the kitchen. “He’s not half bad,” she admitted dropping her head back down. “We’ve been getting along.”
“That’s good. Reese can be easy that way. How are Raoul and Allie?”
“They’re fine. Raoul came hiking with us today, so we had a good time together. We were talking about doing a camping trip after Reese leaves. Allie says it’s not good manners to drag guests camping.”
Blake laughed. “Reese wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
“Allie does. Can’t be rude. So we’ll wait.”
“Allie’s word is law.”
“She’s the only normal one in the family, so we trust her judgment on stuff like that.”
They both laughed. When it naturally tapered off, Blake continued.
Mari’s guard went up. What else had Reese shared besides news of the party? “He’s fine.”
“You never did say how long you’ve been seeing him.”
“Some months now.”
“So it’s serious then? He treats you well?”
Mari sighed and sat upright. “If this is about last night, you can just change the subject.” As soon as she said the words she felt his tension.
“What happened last night?”
Mari’s eyes shot to Reese who was standing at the island. He smirked and raised a brow, clearly understanding her predicament. She’d just told on herself when he hadn’t.
“Nothing,” she mumbled.
“It was enough for you to mention it. Did Reese leave out something he should have told me?”
“No, because there’s nothing to tell.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Is that the dad voice? Really? I’m too old for that to have any effect.”
“Yes,” she said firmly.
He fell silent. She shifted on the sofa.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” she finally said in exasperation. “The boyfriend doesn’t like a strange man in my space. That’s all. Let it go, Blake.”
He was silent for a few moments. “I’ll say this and then I’ll let it go. That man better not ever harm a hair on your head.”
He didn’t need to reiterate he meant it. She could feel the sincerity of his words and it warmed her.
“I’ll make sure he understands.”
“Good. I have to go now. I’ll talk to you soon. Be safe.”
“You too. Talk to you soon,” she echoed.
She swung her feet back to the ground to sit upright on the couch as she ended the call. Reese walked over and offered her a plate of warmed up leftovers. Accepting it, she leaned back into the cushion.
“You’re pretty handy to have around.”
He smiled and claimed the armchair with a plate of his own. After a few bites, she glanced over at him.
“You didn’t say anything to Blake about last night.”
He didn’t respond. She sighed and added the question.
“I’m here to protect you. I saw something I didn’t like. You assured me it wasn’t an issue. I decided to accept your judgment until I see reason not to. I’m not here to report your every move to Blake and I wouldn’t cause tension between you two unnecessarily.”
She scraped her rice together. “Thank you.”
They ate together with Mari recalling highlights from their day and laying out the plans for tomorrow. She was taking their plates to the kitchen when she heard the knock on the door. She kept walking to the sink as Reese went to see who was there.
“Tyler is here.”
Mari set the dishes in the sink and joined Reese at the door.
“Meet me out back on the deck,” she told Tyler over his shoulder.
He nodded and he went back down the steps before Reese closed the door.
“He and I need to talk, so if you could give us some privacy, that’d be good.”
He studied her. “Don’t leave the deck.”
“I can work with that.”
“Then I’ll give you privacy.”
Trusting him at his word, she walked out the back door to the deck where Tyler leaned his elbows against the railing. She stepped up beside him, bracing her hands there and looking out.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he greeted softly.
“I’m surprised your bodyguard didn’t come out with you.” He looked her over when she shrugged and sighed. “You’re upset with me.”
“Annoyed. I’m annoyed. This whole thing is already messy enough without you picking unnecessary fights with Reese. In case you’re confused, last night was an unnecessary fight.”
“Everything I asked him was fair, Mari. You know that. We don’t know anything about him or your father for that matter. You trust him too easily. I don’t like it.”
“Asking questions was one thing, but you let that turn into a big standoff. It didn’t have to get that serious.”
“Maybe I pushed too hard, but what I said stands. You don’t know him.”
“He hasn’t done anything, Tyler.”
“Well, forgive me for not wanting to give him the opportunity, either. I promised you I would keep you safe.”
“I don’t need to be kept safe from Reese.”
“You don’t know that.”
“If he was going to do something, he’s had plenty of chances.”
“Since he has unrestricted access to you, he doesn’t have to be in a rush either.”
“The same thing could be said about you.”
He stiffened before he shoved off the railing. “Is that what you think?”
Mari hung her head and heaved a sigh. “No,” she told the deck.
“Look at me and tell me that’s not what you think,” he demanded grabbing hold of her arm.
Turning into him, she lifted her head. “I said no. I shouldn’t have said that. This is just…a lot.”
Tyler glanced toward the house before looking back at her. “If you’re having second thoughts about this, now’s the time to tell me.”
“Of course I’m having second thoughts,” she hissed. “There’s a man I’m just getting to know living with me. I’m trying to get to know my father over phone calls. And you…”
His eyes glittered. “I what?”
“You’re making all of that even harder to deal with! I’m living it day in and day out and you just keep pushing without telling me anything. I don’t even know what you’ve been doing since this all started.”
“I know what we agreed to!”
“Keep it down,” he ground out with another look at the house.
She slid her fingers into her hair and resisted the urge to tug on the curls. “Look, I-”
He cupped her face and took her mouth in a ruthless kiss. Her lips parted in shock. He dove in, pressing her against the railing as he assaulted her senses. She gripped his arms to steady herself, but emotionally she was reeling. She gave herself over to the kiss, leaning into him and the passion of it.
Moments later, he tore his mouth from hers. Their heavy breathing seemed to echo around them.
“I told you I wasn’t going to let this come between us.” His mouth was still close enough his lips brushed hers when he spoke. “I meant that.”
She closed her eyes. “Tyler…”
He kissed her again, gently this time. “We’re taking tonight. You and me. Alone. We’ll talk about this and then we’ll focus on us.”
Her eyes closed. She was tempted and she knew the absolute wrong thing to do in that moment was point out she needed to clear it with Reese first. She lifted a hand, stroking her thumb over his cheekbone.
“We could use that,” she agreed quietly. “I need to take care of a few things here then I’ll come to you.”
“I can wait.”
Reese’s reaction last night told her everything she needed to know about the likelihood of him accepting her plans with ease. She didn’t want Tyler waiting and making it harder. She shook her head.
“I’ll come to you,” she repeated.
“I’ll hold you to that. It’ll give me time to get some things ready for you.”
“Perfect. Go ahead. I’ll call when I’m on my way.”
He kissed her one last time before he smiled and jogged down the stairs to the deck to disappear around the side of the house. Mari rubbed at the back of her neck. Now she just had to sell Reese on the whole thing.