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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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“Kat,” he said again, in a voice that suggested neither pleasure nor irritation. Just confusion. “Sorry—I thought you were the messenger. I should have checked the monitor.” As if on cue, a skinny guy in a Speedy Messenger cap hopped off a bicycle at the curb. He trotted to the front door and passed a thin, manila envelope to Cole along with a clipboard. Cole signed the receipt, handed the clipboard back to the guy, then looked at me expectantly.

“What?” Why was he looking at me? I didn’t know what was in the envelope.

“Why are you here?” he said, then added, “Kat? Is everything okay?” I jerked my head up, realizing that I’d been staring in the general area of his crotch—and the definite bulge beneath the thin, white towel.

Oh my.

I drew in a breath to gather myself, and hoped he couldn’t see the way my skin had flushed or the way tiny pinpricks of perspiration now dotted my hairline.

“I need to talk to you,” I said. “Can I come in?” When he didn’t immediately move to let me pass, I added, “It’s important.” He stepped to one side, opening the door wider as he did so. “This way.” I followed him into a stunning sitting room, full of gleaming, polished wood features and modern-style furniture that accented the elegant simplicity of the architecture. The evening light swept in through high windows, and the whole room seemed to glow.

“Have a seat,” he said, indicating a blue love seat.

He turned to a small bar built into a corner, and as he walked away, I studied the intricate tattoo of a dragon that covered most of his back.

I’d seen the entire tattoo only once before at a party on Evan’s boat when Cole had stripped down to swim trunks. More frequently, I would catch a glimpse peeking above his shirt on the back of his neck.

The work was detailed and beautiful, and I had no idea why he’d gotten such a large, involved tattoo. I assumed it meant something to him, but when Sloane had asked him once, he’d brushed the question away, and I had never tried to press the point.

Despite the dragon’s beauty, the image was edgy, and it gave the illusion that Cole was unpredictable and wild.

Then again, that wasn’t really an illusion, was it?

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said as he brought me a shot of whiskey, straight up.

“Let me guess,” I said dryly. “We have to talk.” The corner of his mouth quirked up. “It would be a good idea.” He sat in the chair opposite me, still wearing only the towel that was now stretched taut across his knees. I could see the shadow beneath the towel leading up to the juncture of his thighs.

And though I could see nothing in those shadows, I could imagine. And I could want.

And I could get very, very distracted.

I lifted a brow and then nodded toward the towel. “Is this why you’re so successful in business? You know how to keep the other party on edge?” “I do,” he said. “Though in most business meetings I’m fully clothed.” “More’s the pity,” I said, and made him laugh.

“Give me a minute.” He got up, then moved to the far side of the room where a pair of gray sweatpants hung over the back of a chair. He dropped the towel, and I drew a sharp breath in response to the unexpected—and quite exceptional—view of his bare ass.

All too soon, he pulled on the sweats and turned back to me, and though he was now modestly covered, the view was still pretty damn enticing.

“I made a mistake,” he said without preamble. “The other morning on the phone.

And I made a bigger one the night before that.” “You’re wrong,” I said calmly. “But it doesn’t matter. Not right now. That’s not why I’m here.” But it was, though. I’d come for me as much as for my father. And I was determined to walk out of this room with everything I wanted.

That was my plan—now I just had to make it fly.

He eyed me uncertainly for a moment, then sat across from me. “All right,” he said.

“Tell me.” I did, laying it all out for him. I left out the part about my childhood, about growing up in the grift. But I told him what my dad did. I told him about Muratti. I told him about needing someone to forge the will.

I told him more than enough to incriminate my dad, not to mention pull me into the web for conspiracy.

In other words, I put my life and my dad’s life in Cole August’s hands. I did it because I trusted him.

Because I’d seen the good that he’d done for the girls at Destiny, and I knew where his heart lay.

I thought I did, anyway.

I damn sure hoped I wasn’t wrong.

“Where is your dad now?” “I drove him around for about an hour making sure we didn’t have a tail, then I checked him into the Windy City Motor Inn. You know.

That ratty-looking place about a mile from Destiny.” “I know it,” Cole said.

“Fake name?” “Of course. And we paid cash. He knows not to leave the room, not to charge phone calls to his credit card, not to call me on his cell phone, yada yada. I got him a burner in case he has an emergency.” I lifted a shoulder in a shrug.

“He knows the drill.” “Sounds like it. Sounds like you do, too.” I met his eyes. Felt that shock of connection. “I told you,” I said. “I’m really not innocent.” I kept my voice low, my meaning clear. And I could see on his face that he knew what I meant—and what I wanted.

Dear god, how I wanted. I wasn’t doing anything right then but sitting across from him, and yet I could feel him as tangibly as if he was touching me. The rough calluses on his hands. The smooth, taut muscles of his thighs. Those lips that I wanted pressed against me, exploring me.

How had I come to this? I felt as if my whole life I’d been walking around made of some sort of combustible material, and I’d only just realized it. I’d been safe, so long as I stayed away from a spark.

But then I’d edged too close to Cole and he’d ignited me. I was going to burn—that much was inevitable. But dammit, I wanted to pull him into the fire with me.

He sat watching me, silent, waiting for me to go on. But I didn’t know what else to say. “So that’s it,” I finally said. “Will you help?” “What makes you think I can?” “I know about the Da Vinci,” I said, referring to a forgery of a famous Da Vinci notebook that I knew he’d created years ago.

His brow lifted almost imperceptibly. “What Da Vinci?” I cocked my head. “The one that’s in Angie and Evan’s condo. Do I really need to elaborate? Or maybe I should recite the litany of your various criminal activities over the years? I’ve been right here, remember?

I’ve seen a lot. And I understand what I see.” There was a moment of silence, and then he leaned back in his seat, so cool and so casual that it was easy to see how he’d become so powerful. Nothing rattled the man. Or, at least, nothing rattled him until he exploded.

And then the entire world shook.

“If I’m understanding you right, you’re looking to retain the services of someone who could forge a holographic will.” “I am,” I said after a brief moment’s hesitation.

“Honestly, I don’t know what else to do.” The truth was, I understood what giving that forged will to Muratti would do—it would put the old man at risk. But right then, right there, I had to think about my dad. And hope that somehow, some way, everything would work out.

“Even if I could find someone to retain, why should I?” “Because I’m here and because I’m asking,” I said.

“And because I need your help.” I thought of the girls at Destiny that the knights had been helping for years. I thought of the art students that Cole taught in his nonexistent free time, and the professional artists like Tiki who he mentored.

He wouldn’t deny me—I was certain of that. And, yes, I was playing a game and using his good nature to roll the dice, but I had a feeling that in my position, Cole would do the same.

“All right,” he said.

“Done.” He rose, then moved across the room to get another drink.

I watched him go, appreciating the view, but also feeling a bit shellshocked. “That’s it? No negotiation? No back and forth?” “Disappointed?” I shook my head. “How long will it take to make up the forgery?” He leaned against the bar and took a long sip of his whiskey. “I’m not going to make a forgery.” “But you said—” “I said that I’d help. I didn’t say how.” I opened my mouth to argue, but shut it again almost immediately. I wanted a solution that didn’t require a forgery, after all. And considering the kinds of deals and schemes Cole manipulated and skirted every second of every day, I was confident that he could come up with a plan that both made sense and kept my father— and the property owner— alive.

“All right,” I said. “I trust you.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “That’s good to know.” I drew in a breath, then got up off the couch. I moved to him, hoping that he would put his arms around me and draw me close. He didn’t, though, and I was left standing there, a little lost, a little aroused, as the air between us hummed hot and heavy.

“I really do trust you, you know,” I said softly.

“Whatever it is that you think we need to talk about, I promise you, we don’t.” “Kat.” He pressed his hands to my face, then held me gently as he peered into my eyes. I swallowed, unnerved by his intense inspection, but my gaze didn’t waver, and what I saw in his face gave me hope.

He bent forward then and captured my mouth with his. I could taste the whiskey on his breath, and I felt suddenly lightheaded. But I wasn’t sure if it was the liquor or the man.

Unlike our kiss the night of the gala, this one was soft and sweet and a little sad, and I was already shaking my head in anticipation of his words as he pulled away.

“I can’t be the man you need.” “You’re wrong. You can’t be anything else.” He reached into a pocket in the sweatpants, then pulled out a smooth green stone. It was oval-shaped and flat, with a thumb-sized indention on one side. He held it in his hand as I’d seen him do numerous times before, turning it over and over as he stroked and toyed with it.

“I know it confuses you,” he said. “But I care about you, Katrina. And you can scream and rage and hate me all you want, but this isn’t going any further. I can’t stand the thought of hurting you, and you deserve someone a whole lot less fucked up than I am.” “Hurting me?” I repeated.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You say that you want me—that you care about me. And you know damn well that I care about you, too. But you’re pushing me away? That’s what hurts, Cole. Not this.” I turned so that my back faced him, then tugged down the sleeve of my T-shirt to reveal the still-red scrapes on my shoulder.

“Jesus,” he said, his voice like a low, pained curse.

“You didn’t hurt me,” I said, emphasizing each word.

“How can I make you see that? It’s just scrapes. It’s just flesh. It’s nothing compared to what there could be between us.” I wanted to throw up my hands and scream in frustration and bewilderment.

Frustration that I couldn’t get through his irritatingly thick skull. Bewilderment that I cared so much. I’d never cared so much. Not about anything, really, and certainly not about a man.

Things were changing, though. Or rather I was changing. I cared about my house. I cared about finding a better job. I cared about my friends and my father. About getting settled. About those roots I’d told Daddy I was planting.

And I cared about this man. I cared so desperately that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to slap him or kiss him or cry on his shoulder.

Slowly, he reached for me, then gently stroked my shoulder, careful to avoid the worst of the scrapes. I felt my pulse increase in tempo, and I drew in a long, stuttering breath. His hands were like magic upon me, sending swirls of enchantment all through me. Awakening me.

Warming me.

“You see?” I said, looking at him over my shoulder.

“I’m way more resilient than you think.” He said nothing, and I took that as a good sign. I turned so that I was facing him more directly, wanting to read the expression that he was working so damn hard to keep closed off.

“You didn’t hurt me, Cole. You didn’t even scare me. I’ll tell you what you did do, though. You made me wet. You turned me on.” I edged closer so that I caught the clean, fresh scent of his soap. “Do you have any idea how much I wanted you in your office? How much I still want you?” I looked into his eyes, hoping to see a desire that matched my own. Instead, I saw only steely determination.

Dear god, I wanted to break that control. It was like I was on a mission. As if I merely had to break this man for all the mismatched pieces of my own life to fall into place with Cole right there at the center.

I took another step toward him, so close now that I felt the flutter of his breath on my hair. So intimate I could see the pulse of his chest in time with his heartbeat, and each tiny pore on his bare skin.

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