Worry lines scattered from the edges of her wide green eyes.
A line for each of the lives I was forced to lead, Kenzie Reese thought ruefully as she inspected the image in her mirror. Amy. Lisa. Felicity. Shannon. The list—and the lines—continued.
Just twenty-six, but long ago she lost count of the many towns where she lived, forgotten some of her aliases; had never known her real name, in fact. As the child of rambling parents, Kenzie changed identities like most children changed heroes. Change, for her, was merely a way of life.
And there were more changes coming, she could feel it in her soul. Changes always made her cranky, made her jittery. Kenzie hated the unsettled feeling that crept into her body, tightening her nerves and playing havoc with her head, both physically and mentally. The pounding headaches could be soothed with pills and sleep; there was no such cure for the anxiety plaguing her mind. It taunted her, baiting her with the possibility of her worst fear coming true: she would have to move. Again.
Forcing the horrible thought from her mind, Kenzie concentrated on surveying her image. If she ignored the worry lines and the bulky bed and white air cast circling her left leg, she could pass for elegant. The royal blue silk hugged her upper body, accentuating generous breasts before gathering in flattering folds around her curvy hips. The sweetheart neckline offered a tantalizing but demure glimpse of cleavage, highlighted by the twinkle of tiny diamonds and sapphires strung along a simple white gold chain. Matching earrings dangled from her earlobes, peeking out from the dark curls piled atop her head.
Without the cast, the waltz length dress would complement her legs and show off her strappy silver heels; with the cast, the overall look of sophisticated grace and elegance was spoiled. Kenzie sighed, knowing it could not be helped. At least the cast explained her uneven gait, made worse by the difference in heel heights. There would be no sexy high heels tonight, just a single black pump with a low profile. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.
With another sigh of resignation, Kenzie started to pivot away from the mirror, but an old habit stopped her mid-turn. As a child, she played a game with her mirror, talking to the girl from the other side. Far too often, the image had been her only friend.
Placing her palm to the cool glass, touching the reflected image of another palm, Kenzie remembered well the game she played. Each time her parents made her move, she would stand in front of her mirror and study the girl she was leaving behind. She would say her goodbyes in front of her mirror, tucking away the memory of yet another city, another name, another step removed from reality, and she would promise never to forget that particular girl, that particular piece of her soul.
Usually when she stood in front of her mirror, touching her reflection, it was with a solemn face and a heavy heart. But today a smile stole across her face, bringing a sparkle to her green eyes and a glow to her cheeks. A delighted giggle flavored her words as she said aloud, “Mirror, mirror, on her wall. She has a sister, after all!”
As if on cue, Makenna Reagan stepped into the room. “Is someone talking about me again?” Her eyes met Kenzie’s in the mirror, holding the same merry green twinkle. She came further into the bedroom, her gaze sweeping over Kenzie’s reflection. “Oh, Ken, you look gorgeous!”
Makenna stepped up behind her sister and smiled at their double reflection. There were a handful of differences, yet the images were very similar. Makenna stood an inch taller and a few pounds heavier, but the curvy shape was the same. Dark auburn hair hung loose around her shoulders, whereas Kenzie’s black locks dangled from a fashionably messy up-sweep. The natural curls were alike, framing the heart shape of their faces. One wore silk, the other denim, but the clothes were inner-changeable; in fact, Kenzie borrowed Makenna’s dress for the evening. Both women had green eyes and charming smiles.
Those smiles stretched wide now, as they shared the same silly grin through the mirror.
“Remember that day we first saw each other?” Kenzie asked. “I walked up to the mirror in the bathroom, and there I stood, wearing the wrong hair and the wrong clothes!” On the first day of college in Texas, she met her true and forever friend over the row of sinks, a kindred spirit named Makenna Reagan. Their connection had been immediate, their friendship permanent.
“I bet the expressions on our faces were priceless to anyone watching,” Makenna mused. “But I think the funniest part is that we both immediately put our palms up to touch, just like you were doing when I walked in. It was like a living mirror.”
Kenzie’s grin turned rueful. “Too bad it took us eight years to figure out we were actually sisters. Twins, at that!”
Makenna squeezed her shoulders, careful not to muss her hair. “The important thing is, we know now. In our hearts, we were always sisters, even when we didn’t know there was a blood connection.”
“But how did we miss it? On some level, deep down, shouldn’t we have known we were sisters? We know exactly what the other is thinking, for heaven’s sake. We can finish the other one’s sentence, answer a question that was never asked.”
“How could we have known? My parents adopted an abandoned three year old; your parents never told you that you had a sister.”
“All this time, I just assumed we were mind readers, both naturally brilliant and uncommonly in-tune to those nearest us,” Kenzie grinned.
“And don’t forget endearingly modest.”
Identical grins beamed through the mirror.
“So what am I thinking right now?” Makenna challenged her sister.
“Well, on some level you’re thinking about Hardin, because he’s all you ever think about these days.” A guilty flush confirmed Kenzie’s theory. “Which I don’t blame you for,” she said quickly. “The guy is smokin’ hot and crazy about you. You’re going to have gorgeous babies together and I get to be the doting aunt. But aside from Hardin, you have a little bit of free brain space available, and it’s zoned in on this dress. Which I swear I will not ruin tonight. I’ll drink wine white, not red, and I’ll avoid all tomato products.”
“Smart choices. See that it comes back stain-free.” Makenna sternly poked the dress
in question to drive her point home. Then, with a soft smile, she said, “All joking aside, and even that cast aside, you look absolutely beautiful tonight.”
“Thank you, sister dear. It’s not exactly the way I planned to make my debut back into the public, but at least with it being a hospital event, the cast sort of goes with the theme of the evening.”
After nearly a month and a half of confinement, Kenzie was going out for the first time since her car accident. Along with a broken leg and cracked ribs, she had suffered a bruised spleen, surgery, and a huge hospital bill; sadly, her car had not survived. Her date tonight was with the cute intern she met while in the hospital and they were attending a fundraiser for a new orthopedic wing.
“Who knows, you might even start a new trend, theme-dressing for an event!” Makenna quipped. “Oh, there’s the doorbell. Guess your date is anxious to get the night started.”
“Would you mind answering? I still need to put on lipstick.”
As Kenzie applied a glaze of red to her lips, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Her car wreck had been the catalyst for an unimaginable string of events to unfurl, and the changes of the past few weeks still had her reeling.
On the day of her accident, Kenzie was set to leave on a photography assignment in New Hampshire. Just before going in for surgery, Kenzie managed to con her best friend into impersonating her on the trip. Until then, Kenzie had no idea the mafia was watching her, hoping to access her father through her. While she was laid up in an Austin hospital, the mob followed the wrong woman to New England and chased her through the White Mountains, attempting to kidnap her. When Makenna returned six days later, Kenzie learned a shocking truth about her past; her father was a criminal and she had a sister.
Between recuperating from surgery and hiding from the mafia, Kenzie hardly left their apartment for almost five weeks. Normally the life of any party, she had to admit her social skills were now feeling a bit rusty. Even though the Texas Rangers assured her she was safe now, it was disconcerting to know the Italian mafia—and the Rangers—had been following her for months without her even knowing it.
With a final glance into the mirror, Kenzie tucked a stray curl back into place and practiced a smooth gait as she made her way to the door. If she moved slowly and held her head high, the cast did not look too awkward. Or so she convinced herself.
Kenzie rounded the bedroom door, expecting to see the doctor. She did not expect to see the Texas Ranger, but there he was, all six feet, four inches of the man. He was talking to Makenna and a rare smile lifted the corners of his full mouth. Kenzie’s breath suddenly tangled in her lungs and had trouble squeezing its out way.
It was the first time she had seen him out of uniform, yet there was little variance in his casual clothes from his work wardrobe. Instead of khaki, his long legs spanned an impressive length of starched dark denim. The tie was absent and rather than standard white, his pressed western shirt was cream colored. Yet even without the iconic silver star pinned to his chest, he had the sharp, commanding look of a lawman.
The familiar cowboy hat and boots were in place, pulling Kenzie’s eye the full length of him. Her eyes raced over him greedily and a strange pain invaded her heart. It felt a lot like longing, a little like panic.
It was not the first time she had experienced the feeling; two weeks ago, in this very room, she felt the same overwhelming sensation, followed by raw fear. Before she could contemplate the meaning of the odd sensation, the lawman looked up.
The smile on his handsome face slowly wilted. Complete surprise stole over his features and his jaw actually dropped. For one heartwarming, spectacular moment, Travis Merka was rendered completely awestruck, something Kenzie instinctively knew rarely happened. His dark gaze swept over her, brushing her with a caress.
Kenzie had scant seconds to enjoy the look of wonderment on his face. The fleeting expression was gone almost immediately, replaced by the familiar cool mask of professionalism. Had it not been for the faint glow still smoldering in his brown eyes and the lingering heat along her skin, she would think she had imagined the entire thing.
“Miss Reese.” The officer greeted her formally, but his low voice floated along her senses, stirring up ripples of awareness.
“Ranger.” She hated the breathlessness that accompanied her response.
Busy staring at one other, neither saw the smile Makenna tried to hide. “If you’ll excuse me…,” she murmured. They never noticed when she and her fading words slipped from the room.
After a long moment of silence, Kenzie and Travis both spoke at once, asking the same question. “How are you?”
“Ladies first,” Travis insisted.
“I’m fine,” Kenzie assured him. She looked down at her leg, wiggling bare toes from within the bindings of the cast. “At least I’m free of the crutches. Another week or so, I can ditch the cast and be good as new.” She swung her eyes up and probed the expanse of his chest, looking for any signs of lingering injury. Her mind flashed back, once again seeing the blood that dripped from his forehead and poured from the deep slash across his muscled chest.
Travis did not miss the tremor of horror that shivered through her. He reached out a long finger and lifted her chin, forcing her to look up at him. “I’m good. Honestly.” His voice was gentler than before, but firm enough to be convincing. “Takes more than a knife across the chest to put me down.”
“There was also a bottle across the head,” Kenzie reminded him. Two weeks ago, mobster Raymond Foto had impersonated a pizza delivery boy and come to this very apartment, intent on kidnapping Kenzie. He had surprised the Ranger stationed outside in the hallway, cracking a bottle over his head and slashing his chest before leaving him for dead.
“That part still stings.” He made the admission stiffly, dropping his hand.
How could he take his life so casually? Irritation made her voice sardonic. “Spoken like a typical male,” Kenzie scoffed. “Your ego is more fragile than your life.”
His dark eyes glittered at her remark and his mouth turned down in a frown. “I see your smart mouth survived the ordeal.”
Somehow, the man always managed to rile her. She met him four weeks ago, when Ranger Hardin Kaczmarek brought him to the apartment and announced that the two of them were assigned to protecting her and her sister. She knew it was not Travis’s fault that, months before, he had been assigned to her case, but it irked knowing he had been spying on her for weeks without her knowledge. In fact, he had been following her the
day of her accident; it was his car that plowed into hers, landing her in the hospital. The mafia had been tailing them both and found a way to take out both threats with one well-timed chain reaction.
Yet it was not the job or the accident that annoyed Kenzie so; it was the man himself. During their brief acquaintance, they mostly argued and were at odds with one another, but even Kenzie knew the real reason he irritated her so much. There could be no fire without a spark, and Ranger Merka set off all sorts of sparks within her. Without a doubt, he was the best looking, sexiest man she had ever known, but her instant attraction to him rankled her. One look into his dark soulful eyes and she was feeling all sorts of strange and complicated feelings. She immediately put up her guard, protecting her heart with sharp words and stinging wit.
Sparks or no sparks, Kenzie bristled at his comment. “I’m sure you were hoping Foto’s knife would slip and cut my vocal chords.”
His body stiffened and his words came out sharp and menacing. “If that SOB hurt you…”
She did not expect him to react so strongly to her mouthy retort, but his quick burst of anger was for the mobster, not her. “He didn’t,” she was quick to assure him.
To her surprise, his mood changed abruptly. His next words came out slow and warm. “Heard I have you to thank for not bleeding to death.”
She might would have blushed at being heralded a hero, but the horror of the event was still fresh on her mind. There had been so much blood. In her mind’s eye, she could still see the deep gash marring the perfection of his chest. With each pump of his heart, blood gurgled and spurted forth, soaking everything in red.
Kenzie closed her eyes and shuddered as she recalled those awful moments. Up until she saw the blood smeared all over him, she would have sworn she disliked the tall Texas Ranger assigned to keep tabs on her. Faced with his imminent death, she realized her feelings for him were very complicated and she momentarily panicked. For a few defeated moments, she had given up hope. She fell against his chest, blood and all, and begged him not to die. She pressed a kiss onto his lips, begging him to hold on, whispering her hopes for a future with him. And in that brief moment of weakness, when she let her guard down and allowed herself to be vulnerable, Travis Merka had slipped into her heart.
“Kenzie? Are you alright?”
Forcing the bloody images from her mind, she nodded and opened her eyes. He was watching her in concern, his handsome face set with a frown.
It was the first time she talked to Travis about the incident, the first time she had even seen him. She had gone to the hospital that night, waited there with the others while he was in surgery, but she never went back to see him. She did not feel she had the right. Their paths had not crossed since.
“Too much blood makes me woozy.” She hoped her explanation sounded plausible. “And there was so much blood.”
“Paramedics said if it wasn’t for you, I might have bled out.”
“I—I wasn’t the only one. Makenna and Hardin helped me.”
“But they didn’t kiss me.”
Kenzie gasped, her eyes flying to his face when she heard the lowly spoken words. Behind his cool mask, his dark eyes were liquid pools of warmth.
“You—You were conscious?”
“You didn’t really think I’d sleep through our first kiss, did you?”
“Not sleep, exactly. Did you… Could you hear what I was saying?”
He shrugged a broad shoulder. “I knew you were there, telling me to hang on. I could hear your voice.”
“I’m glad you listened.” She intended for the words to come out sassy, but they barely slipped by on a whisper.
“You gave me good reason to.”
She had never heard this low, sensual tone in his voice, never seen this light in his dark eyes. Anticipation shimmied its way along her nerve endings and she tingled all over. Breathing was difficult. “Which—Which was?”
For a big man, he moved gracefully. One step, and he sidled against her. “To see if the next kiss is even better,” he murmured. His large hands slipped around her waist as he pulled her close to his long, lean body. “Kiss me, Kenzie,” he instructed lowly. “Kiss me like you did that day.”
“That day, I was so scared,” she admitted on a whisper. Her fingers slipped between them to gingerly trace where the savage cut had been. “There was so much blood. You were so pale.” She couldn’t help but shiver.
“I’m fine now, Kenzie,” he assured her in a voice that was strong yet gentle.
Kenzie’s eyes floated shut as she leaned in to kiss him. There was such strength in his embrace, such warmth. Such security. That was her biggest weakness of all. She threaded her fingers into the short blond hair at his nape and fitted her mouth against his, eager for another taste of him. He allowed her to control the kiss, as her tongue traced the seam of his lips before venturing inside to explore the warm cavern of his mouth. Travis submitted to her wanderings, enabling her to set the pace and the intensity of the kiss. But when her tongue pushed deeper into his mouth, his control snapped. With a growl of impatience, he took possession of the moment and swept her along in a maelstrom of heat. Kenzie forgot she was waiting on her date to arrive, forgot that Travis most often made her angry, forgot to breathe.
The doorbell buzzed once, twice, before it penetrated into their private world. Travis was slow in releasing his hold on her as Kenzie pulled away to stare up at him. Her arms fell away from his shoulders as a sharp rap on the door finally brought her to her senses.
She stepped toward the door, making the mistake of putting her full weight on her left leg. A sharp gasp escaped her lips and Travis moved to catch her by the waist, but Kenzie shook him away. She refused to meet his eyes as she took a brief moment to collect herself, then pulled the door open.
“I was beginning to think I had the wrong apartment!” the man on the other side of the door said with a smile. He stepped forward, his gaze skimming over her with pleasure. “You look gorgeous.” A teasing tone came into his voice as he said, “I’ve never seen you in clothes before.”
Behind her, Kenzie heard Travis’s sharp intake of breath. She ignored the tall lawman as the intern dipped his head to kiss her in greeting. At the last second, she turned her
face, offering him her cheek.
This time, it was the doctor’s frown she ignored as she moved a step back to invite him inside. The tuxedo-clad doctor faltered when he saw the other man standing just feet away, wearing an expression like thunder. The air was thick with tension as Kenzie hastily made introductions.
“Robert, this is Texas Ranger Travis Merka. Travis, Doctor Robert Bradford. He was one of my doctors while I was in the hospital.” She turned a sunny smile to the physician, trying to drum up the enthusiasm to go through with tonight’s date. Even though they had hit it off at the hospital and spoken several times on the phone since then, seeing him again in person did not thrill her the way she thought it would. With a slight sense of panic, she hurriedly recalled his great personality and his sense of humor, reminding herself that he was not all staid and disapproving, like someone else in the room.
If the situation had not been so embarrassing, it would have been humorous. The two men sized each other up as if they were taking measurements for a customized coffin. When it took longer than necessary to shake hands, Kenzie babbled nervously to fill the uncomfortable silence. “What Robert meant is that he’s never seen me dressed. I’ve always been in bed. In the hospital bed, I mean. I was never wearing clothes. Street clothes, that is.” Could this situation get any more awkward?
Apparently so. As Travis extended his hand to the doctor, his eyes drifted past the man to Kenzie. His dark gaze went to the telltale signs of her smudged lipstick. Lifting a thumb to his own mouth, he swiped it beneath his lip to clear away any corresponding smears on his own face. Not only was the gesture obvious, but it carried a sensual weight that settled deep in Kenzie’s belly and caused her face to burn even hotter than it already did.
To his credit, the doctor handled the situation gracefully. There was no denying the sexual tension between his date and the lawman. “Kenzie, if tonight doesn’t work for you…”
“No, no, don’t be silly! I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” Kenzie deliberately turned away from Travis, so that she could not see that tiny smudge of red lipstick, still lingering there is the corner of his mouth. She was sorely tempted to reach up and wipe it away, so she busied her hands by clasping them around Robert’s arm. “In fact, I’m ready if you are.”
The doctor glanced at Travis. “You’re staying?” he asked uncertainly, his tone a bit wary.
Travis was slow in answering. No doubt it was a method of intimidation, as if a reply was inconsequential. Kenzie released a shaky breath of relief when he finally offered a response. “I have something I wanted to discuss with Kenzie’s sister.”
“Oh. Oh, I see.” The doctor sounded relieved, then surprised. “Sister?” He gave Kenzie a quizzical look. “I thought you said you were an only child?”
“Long story. Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” Kenzie pulled him toward the door, eager to escape the disastrous situation. She grabbed the silver handbag from the entry table and practically pushed Robert ahead of her and out the door. Just before stepping over the threshold, she paused long enough to glance back at Travis. Her step faltered, right along with her heart.
When she could think of nothing to say, he came to her rescue. “I just came over to
say thank you. So, thank you.”
“It was—” She stopped short of saying ‘nothing’. Of course it was something. She had helped save his life. It was everything. Her voice was soft as she said instead, “—my pleasure.” She stared at him across the room, wondering if he could hear the thundering of her heart from there.
When Robert gently cleared his throat in the hallway, Kenzie knew it was time to go. “Goodbye, Travis,” she whispered, pulling the door firmly shut behind her.