It’s true that Kenzie Monroe has an ulterior motive for pursuing Zachary. The half-Asian beauty believes he’s connected to her estranged father, a former MMA fighter who disappeared years ago. And the more Zachary avoids her, the more determined she is—and the hotter their game of cat and mouse becomes…until they both surrender. But as lust, love, and friendship combine, Zachary knows he has to answer all of Kenzie’s questions—because outside of the ring, the heart makes the rules…
“Mello hits all the right notes…A smart heroine, a sensual hero, witty repartee, and complex family dynamics.” – Publishers Weekly on Playing for Keeps
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By Deborah Fletcher Mello
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Deborah Fletcher Mello
All rights reserved.
Kenzie Monroe had arrived just in time for the rainy season, that period between July and October when rain came daily in short, intense bursts. The downpour outside pulled her from a deep sleep, the soft lull from earlier replaced by the harsh rattle of water hitting the tin underlay of the thatched roof. Kenzie had been in Phuket, Thailand, for forty-eight hours. She'd slept forty of them away, jet lag kicking her backside big-time. And now it was raining.
She stretched her lithe body up and out, her back arched toward the ceiling as she tried to ease the tightness out of her muscles. She still felt funky but knew the discomfort had nothing to do with the dull hunger pangs in the pit of her stomach and everything to do with snagging the biggest story of her journalistic career.
A freelance writer for Sports Illustrated International, she'd been on the job for less than a year when she'd pitched an interview and feature on UFC heavyweight champion Zachary Barrett and his twin brother, former NBA phenom Alexander Barrett. The brothers were superstars in their respective fields, and both owned and operated major athletic facilities, Alexander directing Champs in Boulder, Colorado, and Zachary running Revolution in Phuket. They were the poster children for everything right in the sports industry.
After Zachary Barrett's last successful title fight and with the sporting world touting the elite training program he and his brother had developed together, her proposal had been green-lighted, the okay coming with a respectable budget for expenses. Kenzie had been elated, feeling like she'd won the journalism lottery. Now she was scared to death that she might not get it right. She blew a soft sigh past her full lips as she considered the best way for her to approach the article that would eventually carry her byline.
She reached for her cell phone, noting the missed calls and text messages that had come in as she slumbered. Only one number had been repeated multiple times, the caller apparently anxious to get in touch with her. She pushed the REDIAL button and waited as the call connected on the other end.
Stephanie Guy, Kenzie's agent and best friend, answered on the third ring. "Hello?"
"Do you miss me?" Kenzie questioned.
"Like a fungus," Stephanie answered.
"So much love!"
Her friend laughed. "What happened to you? I've been trying to reach you for days now. Why didn't you call?"
"Jet lag. I've been asleep damn near since I got here."
"That's because you spent all of last week stressing instead of getting some rest. You should have known better."
"So did you call just to lecture me?"
"I called to see if you've made contact yet with the Barrett brothers."
There was a moment of pause as Kenzie reflected back on her run-in with Alexander and Zachary Barrett. It had been during her check-in at Revolution, both men standing in the office like two chocolate bodybuilders, buff and hard-bodied, their dark complexions glistening like expensive candy. When she arrived, she had already been out of sorts; the bald, toothless guy who had tried to grope her on the plane had left her feeling some kind of way. Had she been able to carry her Taser, she would have jolted the man; instead she'd left him cringing from an elbow drop to his crotch. Then, seconds after her arrival, the two brothers had her salivating and tongue-tied. It had been a lot to handle!
There had been no missing the amusement that had danced across Zachary's face as she'd shared the details of her experience, babbling nonsensically. His laugh had been deep, rising from someplace in his midsection. His very rock hard, six-packed midsection. She'd eyed him warily, trying to contain the perspiration that had suddenly begun to run between her cleavage, and then she'd introduced herself.
"Congratulations on your win, Mr. Barrett. It was an impressive fight. And it's nice to meet you as well," she had said, shooting a look at Alexander.
Zachary had nodded, his head bowing ever so slightly. "Thank you." He had extended his hand to shake hers. "And you are?"
"Kenzie Monroe. I'm with Sports Illustrated International."
"Kenzie is here to do the article on you and Alex," Sarai Montri-Barrett, Alexander's wife, had interjected.
Zachary's gaze had shifted between the two women, then settled back on the newcomer. He had looked her up and down, the gleam in his eye practically stripping her naked where she stood. His stare had stirred something deep in her feminine spirit, igniting a slow-burning flame between her thighs.
"Where are you from, Ms. Monroe?" he'd asked.
"Please, call me Kenzie. And I was born here in Thailand, in Bangkok. But I was raised in New York."
"So your mother is Thai?"
"No, my father," she'd said, her eyes fastened tight to his. "My mother is black."
Zachary had stared at her intently, his expression shifting into something Kenzie couldn't quite discern. It was almost like a moment of recognition had flashed in his eyes. But although she had never formally met him before, his face had become flushed with color, his eyes wide as he stared at her, looking like he'd just seen a ghost. Then things had suddenly turned awkward. It got really uncomfortable when his sister-in-law had asked him to help her with her luggage.
He had turned, giving Sarai a look. "Find Sing. Have him take care of it," he'd said gruffly.
When Sarai had tried to interject, he'd snapped. Rudely. He'd spoken in Thai, the exchange meant to be between the two of them. "Get Sing. Then call that magazine and tell them this isn't going to work. I have something I need to handle."
Kenzie had watched as he suddenly turned and stormed from the room, his family embarrassed by his bad behavior. But she had been thoroughly entertained. Because she spoke Thai and had understood every foul word he'd muttered. As he'd raged, his brother following to calm him down, she'd sworn that she had heard him call her beautiful.
She shook the memory, her mouth pulled into a slight smile as she returned back to the conversation. "I met them both the day I arrived."
"Well, you must have made quite an impression because one of them called the magazine to request another writer. It appears that Zachary Barrett has some reservations about you working on this story."
Kenzie's eyes widened. "He barely spoke to me!" she said, her voice rising to just an octave below a shout. "Do not tell me the magazine is pulling me!"
"No. I saved the day. That, and a Mrs. Barrett called back to say there had been some kind of misunderstanding and that they were fine with you doing the interview."
"That had to be Alexander's wife, Sarai. She seems cool."
"So, really, what did you do to the man? Because he is too damn fine for you to be alienating him on your first day there."
"He ain't all that," Kenzie muttered, punctuating each word slowly. She paused, thinking about the man. Zachary Barrett was the epitome of good-looking. He was a solid six feet plus a few inches tall, with a strong athletic build, a dark chocolate complexion, chiseled features, and eyes the color of gray steel. The man was orgasmic eye candy. Damn fine didn't begin to describe him, she mused to herself. And Stephanie knew her well enough to hear the hint of denial in her tone.
Her friend laughed. "If you say so, but I have seen photos of him. He looks like all that and a bag of chips to me."
"That was so cheesy!" Kenzie said, laughing along with Stephanie.
"Maybe it was, but you get what I'm saying. So what's your schedule?"
"I was just trying to figure that out. Obviously, I'll talk to both brothers, but I also want to talk to the people who work for and train with them. I want to get a sense of who they are from what others have to say about the duo."
"As long as you have a plan. Just keep in touch. And send me your expenses, please, so I can keep track, because I know you won't, and I don't want the magazine to get any surprises we can't explain."
"Yeah, yeah," Kenzie answered with a slight eye roll.
"And one last thing," Stephanie added before disconnecting the call. "Don't piss off the man. Pissed-off men don't give good interviews!"
Kenzie chuckled as she dropped her cell phone back onto the tabletop. She and Stephanie had met in college. They'd been roommates for three of the four years they'd been at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Stephanie knew all of her dirty little secrets, and there was nothing the two wouldn't do for each other. They often joked that when one called asking for help burying a body, the other would just bring the shovel, a rose bush, and never once ask any questions. Stephanie was like a sister, and she'd been watching over Kenzie since they'd both chosen their respective career paths.
Rising from the bed, Kenzie threw open the door of her less-than-luxurious accommodations. She'd been housed in one of the larger guest bungalows at Revolution, the MMA training camp owned by Zachary Barrett. With a reputation for being a premier destination for Muay Thai, MMA, and fitness training, the facility had been featured in many a documentary and travel show, but nothing had prepared her for the extraordinary property. She had often read about Zachary boasting that this property was his dream come true, and now she understood why — it was one of the prettiest places she'd ever visited.
The entire property was surrounded by coconut palms and banana trees on one side and beach front on the other. A gravel road lined with lush foliage greeted visitors; the thick, verdant vegetation looked like a postcard pictorial. About a mile in, the road opened onto a clearing that gave way to all things Revolution. On the left side of the property was an extensive open-air gym. The space hosted multiple fight rings and was equipped with training bags, free weights, isolation machines, and other assorted gym equipment. The entire area was covered with a high thatched roof that allowed the breeze to flow through from the beach area that bordered the property.
On the right side of the facility, there was a fully equipped indoor gym, rooms for dance and yoga training, and an on-site cafeteria. There were twelve additional bungalows to accommodate paying guests, and just a few steps behind where she was staying was Zachary's private residence. Despite the early-morning hour and the rain that was coming in a heavy downpour, there were dozens of people already working out, a team of devoted and hardworking trainers putting them through their paces.
Kenzie wrapped her arms around her torso, hugging herself tightly. It still amazed her that she was actually back in Thailand. It had been twenty-six years since her last visit. She'd barely been four years old when her mother had come back one last time, hoping to connect them both with her father. Knowing nothing about her paternal parent was why Kenzie had embraced all things Thai, desperate to connect to that half of her bloodline. She'd learned the language and the traditions, had studied the history, and considered herself as Thai as anyone else born and raised there. But she still knew nothing about her paternal lineage, and she fully intended to spend every spare moment she could find discovering her father's people, praying that she might actually find her father as well.
She inhaled deeply, the earthy scent of the rain on dry earth and the pungent sweetness of the flora filling her lungs. She closed the door, leaving the damp air and rain outside.
Stepping back into her space, she took in the view, seeing it in the daylight hours with a clear head for the first time. The structure in its entirety was teak, with an insulated thatched roof. The tropical hardwood was brownish red, everything about the natural striations warm and inviting. The interior of the room was sparse, just a full-sized bed dressed in white bedding, a nightstand, one lamp, and a chair. Attached, there was a small bathroom with a shower. If it was nothing else, it was comfortable.
Kenzie moved into the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind her. After pulling her tank top over her head, she stepped out of her lace G-string and right into a heated shower. The warming waters felt blissful against her skin as she turned in a slow circle beneath the massaging spray. It was minutes before she was done, the water beginning to cool substantially when she finally stepped out. She grabbed a plush white towel to wrap herself in, then kicked her dirty clothes out of her way as she moved back into the living space. After moisturizing her skin with a rich emollient of coconut cream and vitamin E oil, Kenzie tossed on a pair of athletic shorts and a Bob Marley T-shirt. She took time to pull a wide-toothed comb through her voluminous curls, then twisted the thick tresses into two Pocahontas braids that fell down the length of her back. Slipping her feet into a pair of high-top Converse sneakers, she grabbed her digital recorder, her notepad, and an ink pen and headed out the door.
* * *
Zachary Barrett should have been paying attention to his opponent. He should have been focused on throwing punches and blocking blows. Instead, he hesitated, finding himself staring across the yard at Kenzie Monroe. Her complexion was like honey, a deep, rich, sweet coloration that paid homage to her African heritage. But her features were Asian — almond-shaped eyes, forest-thick lashes, and chiseled cheekbones. Her hair was a definite melding of the two cultures — thick, curly hair that fell well past her shoulders and was now braided neatly into two plaits. Her body was a contradiction, her petite stature boasting voluptuous curves. She was a perfect figure eight with a full, lush bustline, a rail-thin waist, and a bubble-shaped ass that had him wondering what it might feel like in the palm of his hand.
Zachary was so distracted by her presence that it had him feeling off sides, and he was staring unabashedly. Kenzie Monroe had been out of sight and almost out of mind since her abrupt arrival at his renowned athletic facility. The journalist who'd come to do a magazine article on him and his twin brother had arrived like a storm wind — loud, abrasive, and wanting to be noticed. After discovering who she was, he had wished her away, cursing her presence in his personal space. Then, just as quickly, she couldn't be found. She'd disappeared. Nothing left but the barest breeze of memory and the decadent scent of her perfume lingering in the tropical air. That's when he suddenly found himself wanting her to return. It was crazy and out of character for him, and he had no one to blame, so he blamed her.
And now she was back, intruding in his space, everyone else acting as if she belonged there. Zachary stared, and suddenly Kenzie was staring back, her large eyes keyed in on him, her entire face pulled into a bright smile. He abruptly snatched his gaze from hers, and in that same instant, his brother nailed him in the chest with an easy right cross, the blow knocking the wind out of his sails.
"Humph," Zachary gasped, the guttural sound rising from deep in his midsection.
Alexander laughed as he stepped back. He shook his head as he pulled off his boxing gloves. "You're not going to win any fights like that."
Zachary sputtered. "It's ... a good ... thing ... I ... already won ... the fight ... I needed to win." He gulped air, filling his lungs and then blowing his breath out slowly.
The current heavyweight MMA champion had successfully defended his title just weeks earlier. He had his brother to thank for getting him fight-ready. The two men had been estranged for many years, and it had taken some serious intervention from Zachary's best friend, Sarai, who was now his brother's wife, to bring them back together. The duo was once again back in sync — A to Z, the bad boys of Boulder, Colorado, looking to conquer the world side by side. Together they were a childhood dream come true and then some.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Alexander asked as the two exited the fight ring. "What's going on with you? You're not usually so distracted."
Excerpted from Perfect Pleasures by Deborah Fletcher Mello. Copyright © 2016 Deborah Fletcher Mello. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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