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«Copyright © 2014 J. Kenner The right of J. Kenner to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the ...»

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So far, I was still intrigued.

But not enough to talk about it. Not yet. I was still in that magical honeymoon phase.

I’d talk about it once the sheen had worn off and I was ready to knuckle down and think about whether or not I could really make it work.

And speaking of honeymoons...

“It’s not me we need to be discussing,” I said. “We have a party to plan. And we ought to do it while we’ve still got a buzz,” I added, with a nod to our glasses.

The trouble with having a bridegroom who owned a strip club was that it took the wow-factor out of taking the bride to a strip club, even one of the male variety. But with the Manhattans flowing through our veins, Sloane and I decided that a hot-guy version of Destiny could be just the ticket. And, because we were totally juiced, we also decided that bringing Angie to Destiny afterward and having her put on her own little show for Evan would be even more amusing.

Only time would tell if it was a good plan, or just one of those schemes that sounds fabulous when you’re plastered.

“And speaking of the knights and sexy encounters,” Sloane said, propping her chin on her fist and studying me through narrowed eyes.

“Where did you disappear to last night?” “Home,” I said firmly.

“By way of... ?” she prompted. “Come on, Kat, give. There’s no way that amazing dress failed to make an impact.” I thought of the dress, now crunched up in my trashcan, and smiled. “It made an impact, all right.” “Ha!” she said, her tone triumphant. “I knew it. Tell.” Sloane, apparently, was pretty damn perceptive.

“It didn’t go exactly the way I planned,” I admitted, which was about as close to a moment of deep, girly sharing as I intended to get.

“All right,” she said slowly. “Bad end of the spectrum or good end of the spectrum?” “Both.” Her brows lifted. “Oh, really? Care to elaborate?” “Not in the slightest.” “But it was good?” I had to laugh. “For a former cop, you don’t listen very well. Yes, it was good. I had a moment of jealousy before it was good—some woman named Michelle who says she’s seen me at Destiny wrapped herself around Cole.

And then I realized that she and Cole and some guy were all caught up in the business side of things, so I pushed the jealousy down, for which I gave myself bonus points.

Then Michelle left and I had some Cole time and it was...

quite delicious,” I decided.

“At least until it got strange.” I thought of the encounter earlier at the house. “And then it got delicious again.” “Delicious is good,” Sloane said, then added, “I’ve met Michelle.” “Yeah? So she works for them, right?” “Sure,” she said, but she didn’t quite meet my eyes when she said it. Instead, she took a sip of her drink, then reached down the bar to snag a menu another customer had left behind. “We should order. I’m starving.” “Uh-huh,” I said. “I’ve met toddlers who are more subtle. What’s up?” “Nothing is up. My blood sugar, however, is down.

Must eat. Want to split french fries?” “I want you to tell me whatever it is you’re not telling me.” “Two orders of fries,” she said to the bartender. “And add in some of those stuffed mushrooms, too. Just for fun.” “Sloane.” “It’s no big, really.” “People never say that when it’s true,” I pointed out.

“It’s about Michelle, so just spill it. Did she and Cole used to date? Christ, are they dating now?” “They’re definitely not dating.” Her voice was oddly firm.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” “Oh, hell, Kat. I don’t know. I already told you that Cole doesn’t date. He fucks.

And he’s fucking Michelle.” “I see.” And I did see. I just wasn’t sure I liked what I saw.

“I don’t think it’s like that.” “Like what?” I asked.

“Like anything other than two people who are convenient to each other. I just thought that I should tell you because despite your Fuck Buddy speech last night, I get the feeling you want more than that.” I focused on trying to stab the cherry in my drink with a toothpick. “I’ll be honest,” I said. “I don’t know what I want. But, yeah, I think more probably comes close.” “I’m sorry,” Sloane said.

“Don’t be. I don’t have a claim on him. And from what you just said, neither does Michelle.” “There’s more. And it’s really none of my business, but we’re friends, and I feel like you should know what you’re getting into, because it may not be your thing.” “All right,” I said, a little worried, a little intrigued.

“Tell me.” “Cole and Michelle—they both belong to a local club.

The Firehouse. Have you heard of it?” I nodded. “I’ve heard of it.” I’d never been there, but Flynn had gone once or twice with clients. A local BDSM club. Very high end. Very exclusive.

And very much not within my realm of experience.

“Like I said, it’s none of my business. But I do know that Cole goes there. And I know that he doesn’t date. So if you’re either looking for a relationship or if that’s not your kind of scene, you may want to back off. I love you and I love Cole, and I don’t want either one of you getting hurt.” I nodded, acknowledging her words even as I turned the possibilities over in my head.

Was that what I wanted?

What I needed?

I didn’t know.

All I knew was that I was screwed up nine ways from Sunday where sex was concerned.

But this... this intrigued me. I didn’t know if it would help, but I did know that I was curious.

And there was no way in hell I was backing off now.

Mornings come early when you work in a coffee shop.

Since I was opening, I got to Perk Up by five, then got the brews going before I unlocked the door. Two cars were already parked outside, and the moment I flipped the lock, the drivers killed their engines and made a beeline for the shop. Less than five minutes later the drivethrough was four cars deep.

Just another day in the life of our fabulous commuting culture.

The morning went by in a blur of coffee, scones, lattes, espressos, and granola-topped fruit cups. By the time I was able to finally breathe, it was past ten and time to get ready for the lunch rush.

The only thing that worked out well was that I didn’t have any time to think or angst or otherwise fret about Cole.

I told myself that was a good thing, but the moment I had the space to breathe, he filled my head again.

“Take your break,” Glenn, the manager, said to me.

“And if you take it outside, clear the tables on your way back in.” I nodded, then dumped a gallon of cream in my coffee to cool it off quickly, grabbed yesterday’s paper from the break room, and headed outside to the patio. The heat was almost unbearable, but I liked it.

My life had been a series of financial peaks and valleys, and all too often we would hit the valleys in the winter. Since my father’s favorite money-saving trick was to pile on the covers and ignore the radiators, I spent a lot of winters beneath old quilts and fleece blankets.

And despite what I told my dad, my fingers and toes were always chilled, and the cold would spread right through my bones.

I flipped casually through the paper as I soaked in the sun. I wasn’t interested in Chicago politics or the local society gossip. Mostly, I was looking at the ads. Old habits die hard, and you can tell a lot about what folks in a particular town want by what is advertised in their local paper. And with the right information, you can sell anybody anything—from oceanfront property in Arizona to a far-off planet named after their dearly departed grandma.

Today, I saw nothing interesting in the various advertisements, but the entire double-page spread of the Style section featured the gala. There were photographs of the guests, the artists, even the appetizers. But the only picture I was interested in showed Cole.

I’d never known the man not to look incredible, but in that photo he looked like a fallen angel, beautiful yet dangerous. The photographer’s angle was wide, but he’d been standing close enough to Cole that the flash reflected off his skin, making him not only glow but seem to pop away from the background. The effect was exotic, and ensured that every eye perusing the paper was drawn to the man.

The man, however, was focused on something else entirely.

It wasn’t obvious at first.

And to be fair, I was probably the only person in the entire world other than the photographer who knew what Cole was looking at. But that didn’t change the basic fact— Cole was looking past the crowd of people vying for his attention. His eyes were on someone near the bar. A female someone in a red dress and red shoes.

A someone who was me.

But it was the expression on his face that truly grabbed my attention. Lust. Longing.

And the kind of intense desire that inspired love songs and sonatas.

Damn the man. Damn the man for denying himself.

And, in doing so, denying me, too.

I’m not naive. Not by a long shot. But after yesterday’s incredible morning of phone sex, Cole had said that he would protect me even from him. At the time, I had no idea what he’d meant. But Sloane’s revelation about the Firehouse answered that question.

He wanted me. He’d said it, and this photo showed it.

But he thought I couldn’t handle what having him would mean.

I intended to prove otherwise.

I wasn’t, however, entirely sure how to go about that yet.

But that was okay. I didn’t have any plans to see him until Friday night cocktails on Evan’s boat. A small prewedding gathering for friends and family. That was almost a week away. I knew from experience that I could pull a con together in under a week. How much harder could this be?

I tried to focus on various scenarios as I went about the rest of my workday, but foaming cappuccinos and blending icy coffee drinks didn’t mesh well with detailoriented thinking. And by the time I was finally off-shift, I was just too damn tired.

I kept the top down on my Mustang when I drove home, wanting the feel of the wind through my hair. I’ve had the car for over a decade, and she’s my pride and joy, never failing to put me in a good mood. I drove her too fast and cranked the radio too loud, and by the time I pulled into the lot behind my Rogers Park apartment I was feeling exceptionally awesome.

I climbed the stairs humming the latest from Taylor Swift, then called out for Flynn.

He didn’t answer, but I could hear him clattering around in the kitchen. Even better, I could smell something baking.


I picked up my pace, calling out to him as I hurried to the kitchen. “If those cookies I’m smelling are for some party you’re going to and I’m not allowed to taste, you and I are going to have words.” I took a minute to drop my purse in my bedroom and change into shorts and a tank top. Then I hurried to the kitchen, only to skid to a stop when I saw the man standing by the stove, an apron around his waist and an oven mitten on his hand.

“Catalina,” he said, with the kind of smile that would always look like home to me.

Then he spread his arms wide. “Hello, sweetheart.” “Daddy?” For a moment, I just stood there, a little dazed and a lot confused. Then the bits and pieces of reality that make up my world shifted back into place.

“Daddy!” I repeated. And that time, I ran toward him and threw myself into his waiting arms.

eight “So you’re really out?” I asked, as I moved cookies from the sheet to a plate with a small green spatula. “No more cons?” “It’s more complicated than that,” Daddy said, as I slid the plate to the center of the table, then sat down across from him.

“You’re bullshitting me.” “What a thing to say to the father who loves you.” “As opposed to the father who doesn’t love me?” He made a vague harrumphing noise, then busied himself with selecting two cookies.

I took one for myself, then leaned back in my chair.

“You’re the one who told me we had to sever ties, Daddy.

Remember? You gave me a whole long speech about how if you got in trouble, you didn’t want them tracking you back to your little girl.” “Damned eloquent speech it was, too.” “It was,” I agreed. “Must have been, since you managed to convince me. Do you realize I haven’t seen you since that last con you were planning went south, and that was the one that was supposed to make us richer than Midas.” He grimaced, obviously remembering his stories to me about how I’d soon have a condo in Paris and an apartment in New York and a mattress made of hundreddollar bills if I wanted it. And also remembering how he’d caught the eye of at least a dozen cops and Feds during that deal. It had been dicey for a while, and when he’d told me to lie low, I’d thought that it had been a wake-up call to get him out of the life.

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