Feeling another ridiculous blush coming on, I turned back to the path. Kanoe was right behind me, balancing the surfboards under his arms. Just looking at him made me feel hot and flustered all over…for more reasons than I cared to consider.
I opened the chain-link gate to the twisting path leading up to the house. Kanoe had been nice, but I knew how he and his brother and cousin saw me. I was a freakishly pale girl who didn’t understand his local lingo, who had to be rescued from treacherous riptides and was hopeless on a surfboard. More embarrassed by the ordeal than I’d thought possible, I straightened my spine and pressed on.
All this was simply more proof that I was out of my element. At the office, I impressed people every day. Here, I could hardly walk across a beach.
My irritation with myself growing, I marched up the mossy path to my rental. Why was I so embarrassed? Why did I wish, deep inside, that I could’ve impressed him out there? Why did it even matter?
Pausing in my step, I glanced back at him. Well, it was obvious. I remembered the smoldering way Kanoe had looked at me when we were out on the water, with his golden-brown eyes slightly narrowed, focused. As if he wanted more of me. The look had heightened sensation throughout my body and even out there, it had been hard to keep from touching him.
It meant nothing. A little chemistry never meant anything.
I sighed, thinking of how I’d been so giddy on the beach after that first time I’d caught a wave. What the hell had happened to my self-control? First of all, nobody rode in all the way to the sand. Nobody jumped up and down afterward. Nobody laughed like a maniac.
Nobody but me, the white woman who liked to pretend I belonged but didn’t. What was I trying to prove? Celeste McMillan never lost control, never abandoned her cool reserve. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d behaved like that. It was amazing Kanoe hadn’t run for the hills hours ago. He had to think I was a complete idiot.
Then that awful wipeout and my bleeding head sealed the deal. I was an idiot.
I heaved a sigh. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. I might as well be myself—there was nothing to lose at this point.
Kanoe set the boards upright on the lanai and followed me inside. There, he sat me on the couch, then found a towel and wet a washcloth. He sat beside me and began to bathe my forehead with gentle strokes.
I gave him a rueful look. “This is becoming a habit. You helping me out, I mean. First with my gate and my luggage, and now with surfing and my stupid head injury. Maybe I should keep you around.”
“Maybe you should,” he said mildly.
Maybe I should.
There it was, the same dark gaze he’d given me out in the surf, before I’d made a complete idiot of myself.
Maybe he hadn’t minded my overexcited behavior, my inexperienced klutziness.
“I’m sorry I was an idiot.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“You know. The riptide. Surfing on my stomach all the way to the shore. Jumping up and down like a…” I frowned at his smile. “What?”
His smile transformed into a low chuckle as he gently pressed the towel to my wound. “I liked watching you out there.” His laugh diminished, and his face turned serious again. “Not many people are as enthusiastic as you.”
I snorted softly. “That’s a nice way of putting it.”
He shook his head. “No, it isn’t. It’s the truth.” He glanced toward the window, then back at me. “I’ve been surfing with Nalani since we were little kids, but I’ve never met a woman I—” Breaking off abruptly, he stood and raised the bloody towel in his hand. “I’m going to rinse this off.”
I watched him walk over to the sink. With his back to me, he rinsed off the towel. What had he meant? He’d never met a woman he…what? I was dying to know.
No point in dwelling on it. He was here now, and something was happening between us. The tentative first steps toward…something. What it could possibly end up being, I couldn’t imagine.
He wrung out the towel and headed back to the couch, lowering himself beside me. His expression was shuttered now—unreadable.
Impulsively, I reached out. My hand hovered above his shoulder. Then I swept my fingers across the broad black stroke of ink just below his collarbone.
He drew in a sharp breath.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. His skin was taut, warm, smooth. The air between us felt electric, charged with something I couldn’t define.
“What does it mean?” I whispered, continuing to trace the line across his shoulder.
“It’s a tapa design. For my family and ancestors.”
“What about this?” I trailed the path to the outside of his upper arm, circling a leaf inside the pattern. Kanoe drew the washcloth down my shoulder.
“The ti leaves are symbols of rank and power.” Was it my imagination, or was his voice hoarse? “They’re also talismans against evil, to encourage the favor of the gods.”
I exhaled. “Why do the arrowheads wind around the leaves?”
“They represent the path of my life.”
He hooked his finger under my bikini’s shoulder strap, caressing the flesh underneath. “You got blood on it.”
It would take only a flick of his finger, and the strap would be down, exposing my breast.
I wanted him to do it. To strip me until I was naked, then lay me on the couch and— I swallowed that thought down.
“Ah, well. I have other bathing suits,” I said, trying to bring myself back to the realm of “light conversation with a guy I barely know.”
“Maybe a good idea not to wear this one again, anyway.” His fingertips stroked my collarbone.
He stared at my mouth. “I think I like you. I don’t want you to get eaten.”
He thought he liked me. I swallowed hard, then frowned.
“Eaten? What, is there a giant silver-bathing-suit-eating manta ray lurking in these waters?”
He laughed gruffly, showing off his dimples.
I couldn’t tear my focus from him. He was so sexy, he took my breath away.
“No. I mean, there are rays, but not the kind that like to eat bathing suits. The sharks, though—they’re attracted to shiny metal things. Makes them think of fish scales.”
I frowned. “Really?”
His gaze dropped to my bikini top. He rubbed the bloody strap between his fingers. “Yeah.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
His eyes locked with mine. “I didn’t want to scare you. Don’t worry, there hasn’t been a shark attack at this beach in…” he pondered a moment, “…two years, I think.”
My mouth dropped open. “Two years? That’s not very long at all.”
“It’s long…” His voice seemed to come out in slow motion. The way his gaze had locked on to my lips sucked the air from my lungs. “Very…very…long.”
I stiffened. This guy was a stranger. This wasn’t part of the plan. I didn’t want this.
But that was a lie. I wanted it. Bad.
His fingers closed around the back of my neck, drawing me close. His lips brushed against mine, feather-soft. Then he kissed me.