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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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But don’t lift me too high. I assure you, I’m fucked up in some extraordinary ways.” “So maybe we’re both broken,” I said. “Maybe we make each other whole.” He looked at me for so long, I thought he was going to stay silent—and I started to get scared. Those were relationship words, and I wasn’t entirely sure where they came from.

Except that was a lie.

Maybe I’d told myself and Sloane that Cole was simply an itch to be scratched, but I’d never really believed it.

Who’s better at lying to herself than someone who’s spent her entire life spinning lies?

And that particular lie had been a balm against a broken heart.

But Cole hadn’t broken my heart. Just the opposite.

And now I was waiting—and not too patiently—to find out if he felt the same way.

“Cole,” I said. “Please say something.” “I don’t need to,” he said, then wrapped me in the circle of his arms. “You’ve already said it all.” We held on to each other like that for a while, and I think I would have liked to have stayed that way forever.

But I couldn’t escape the one nagging thought. “Why was it so easy for me before, but when you woke me up just now, I was all bottled up?” “Because I was taking,” he said matter-of-factly, “and earlier, you were giving.” I shifted in his arms so that I could see his face—and so that he could see the confusion on mine. “Come again?” His mouth curved into an ironic smile. “You’re a submissive, Kat.” I blinked at him, trying to wrap my head around both the word and the concept.

“I don’t like labels,” he continued, “but I think the idea is true. Whether you always would have been or whether what happened to you as a kid shifted something inside of you, it’s true now. It’s part of you.

Someone takes, and you close up. But if you give yourself to someone, then you’ve not only freed yourself but given them the best gift possible: all of you.” “You’re saying I relinquish control? I don’t think so. Even with you I was always—” “Yes,” he said. “That’s my point. You were always.

You’re not giving up control.

You’re grabbing control by the balls. You’re saying this is what you can have. Me, my pleasure, my body, and my heart.” His words rang over me, clean and true and pure.

Except for one small thing.

“You’re wrong,” I said, then pressed my finger to his lips when he started to argue.

“Not someone, Cole. You.

You’re the only one I trust.

The only one I could hand it all over to.” I couldn’t read the expression on his face.

“Why?” “Because you matter,” I said, echoing the words he’d said to me. And then, as I watched the smile ease slowly across his face, I knew that not only were the words true, but they were the perfect thing to say.

thirteen Since Cole’s cooking skills ranked somewhere below mine, we had coffee and frozen waffles for breakfast.

They actually tasted pretty good, and I liked the domesticity of eating them in his well-lit kitchen, sharing the newspaper, and occasionally brushing hands just for the hell of it.

I even offered to clean up, since that required little more effort than loading the dishwasher and throwing away the empty cardboard Eggos carton.

I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee, then checked my phone. “I should get going,” I said. “I need to change before my shift starts at ten, and I want to go see my dad first.” He looked up from the Business section. “No,” he said, and then went back to the paper.

I held out my spoon and knocked the top of the paper down again. “You want to say that again?” “You heard me. No.” “No¸” I repeated. “I hope you’re telling me that Glenn called and my shift doesn’t really start at ten. Because if you’re telling me I can’t go visit my father, I’m going to be more than a little ticked off.” “You can’t go visit your father.” I shoved back from the table and lunged to my feet.

Cole thought he had a temper? Well, he hadn’t yet experienced mine.

“Sit down, Kat,” he said, his voice almost bored. “Sit and think. You know I’m right.” “I want to see my father.” “Do you really? Because every time you go there, you add to the risk that someone has learned the connection between you two. That they’re following you. That they’ll find him.” I sat down. I wasn’t going to admit it out loud—not until he forced me to, anyway— but he was right.

“Ilya Muratti is not the kind of man you fuck around with. And I don’t care how careful you and your father have been over the years, Muratti has resources.” “You’re right,” I said.

“I’m just worried. I want to see him. Talk to him.” “Then call him on the burner. Let him know we have a plan.” “Do we have a plan?” “We will,” he said. “And until we do, your dad doesn’t need to worry.” “You’re good at this,” I said.

“I’ve had practice,” he said, then picked up his coffee cup.

“I believe that.” I got up to get the coffee carafe, then refilled both our mugs. “What exactly do you do? Other than forge Da Vinci manuscripts, I mean?” “Let’s just say that I have my fingers in many and varied pies, and not all of them are legitimate.” “Still?” “Evan’s the only one who’s gone completely straight. He’s marrying a senator’s daughter. And there are other reasons. He gets as much thrill out of running a straight business as he does planning a heist or con.” “And you?” “The third degree, Ms.

Laron? Should I frisk you for a wire?” “Frisk me if you want, but I’m just curious.” I didn’t say that I wanted to know every little thing about him—even though that was absolutely true.

“I promise you I have the experience and the resources to help your dad. And I’m not squeamish. Whatever needs to be done to keep him safe, it will be. Okay?” I nodded, because that did help. I still wanted to know about Cole’s background— what happened when he was a kid? How did he end up in the scared straight camp where he met Evan and Tyler?

But all that could wait.

Right now, I needed to focus on my father. “So what is the plan for my dad?” “I’m still considering the options. Give me a day to think. To talk with Evan and Tyler and—” “Cole, no. I don’t want them thinking...” I trailed off with a shrug, not sure what it was I wanted to hide.

He reached for my hand and twined our fingers.

“Everyone has secrets. I think the three of us know that better than anyone. Four,” he amended, “counting you, too.” “Are we counting me?” “Of course.” I waited a beat. “Just keep me in the loop, Cole, okay?

This is my dad we’re talking about. This plan you say you’ll have? I want to know what it is. Promise me,” I said. “Promise me you’ll tell me the plan.” “I promise.” I nodded, satisfied. Then I cocked my head and studied him. “You know, you didn’t seem as astounded by my revelation that I’m not a completely honest and upstanding citizen as I thought you would be.” The look he shot me was laced with heat. “It’s not exactly a secret that you caught my eye. I’ve done a bit of poking around on you.” “Really?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice.

“Really,” he acknowledged. “You’re good at covering your tracks. I couldn’t find a thing prior to you showing up in Chicago.

And that was the most suspicious thing of all.” “Hmmm,” I said, my voice all innocence.

“I guess that makes you like Aphrodite, born from the sea. Or at least from Lake Michigan.” “Naked in a seashell? I don’t think so.” “Katrina Laron,” he said, as if my name was a chocolate soufflé, light and airy on his tongue. “Who chose the name?” I’d lived inside a cloak of self-preservation for so long that I almost protested that I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I remembered myself and answered the question. “I did.

I picked Katrina because it’s close to my real name.” “Which is?” I smiled at him. “You should know.” “Catalina?” “My dad likes that island, too.” “And Laron?” “That one I picked because I liked the joke.” “All right. I’ll bite. What’s the joke?” “It’s usually a first name for a boy, and it’s French in origin. It means thief. I thought it was fitting.” From his expression, it was clear he agreed.

I frowned, thinking of my name and identities and all the stuff that people did to hide—and all the other stuff that people could do to find them.

“Cole,” I began, but he silenced me with a simple touch of his hand.

“They can’t find you. Not easily. And even if they do, they won’t find your dad.

Trust me, Catalina. It’s going to be okay.” And, because it was Cole who was saying so, I believed him.

About ten minutes after I left his house, my phone rang.

I glanced at the display, saw that it was Cole, and felt the sweet flutter of anticipation in my chest.

I reached over and punched the button to answer the call on speaker. “Hey, stranger,” I said. “It’s been far too long.” “It has indeed,” he agreed.

“I need you to find a place to pull over.” I frowned at the serious tone in his voice. “Is everything okay?” “As far as I’m concerned, everything’s perfect,” he said.

“Including you.” “Oh. But then what—” I remembered my suggestion about phone sex. “Oh.” He laughed, the sound full of heat and wickedness, and I knew I was right.

I maneuvered into the parking lot of a nearby grocery store, then went around the back to the area where the deliveries are made and the employees park. That might, I thought, give me some privacy.

I’d expected the calls to come when I was home—if they came at all.

But I wasn’t in the mood to argue. Not if Cole was giving my idea a chance.

And more than that, I was already turned on. Just the sound of his voice—just the thought that he wanted me, that he was thinking about touching me and fucking me —good god, I was wet already and my nipples were tight and hard and pressing almost painfully against the lace of my bra.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“In my car. Behind a grocery store. A long way from where any other cars are parked.” “No, you’re not.” “No?” “You’re in a bedroom.

The walls are painted red.

There’s a bed in the center of the room with an upholstered headboard and a white satin duvet. Can you see the room?” “Yes. Is it your room?” “No,” he said. “But right now it’s ours. Tell me what else is in the room.” “Um, candles,” I said.

“There’s no light, but there are candles mounted in sconces on the walls. Some are simply in glass jars along the floor. The room is dim, and seems to flicker with the flames.” “I see it,” he said. “And something else, too. Two things. Do you know what they are?” I licked my lips. “Tell me.” “A trunk. Old-fashioned.

Leather. You walk to it and open it.” “What do I see?” I asked, imagining the interior of the trunk.

“Toys,” he said simply, in the kind of tone that brought to mind all sorts of erotic fantasies. “It’s the one on top I’m interested in. Do you see it? There’s a handle, almost like a stick wrapped in black leather. There are flails attached. Loose, thin strips of soft leather. Over a dozen of them.” “It’s a flogger,” I said, and heard the catch of excitement and fascination in my voice.

“Very good.” “I told you I’m not innocent,” I said huskily.

“Have you ever used one?” “No.” “Good,” he said. “I want to be your first.” “Cole—” I stopped, unsure what I’d intended to say.

“Yes?” “I—what else is in the room?” “Just one other thing. A St. Andrew’s cross. Do you know what that is?” “Not really,” I admitted.

“Picture an X made out of smooth wooden beams. It’s attached to a frame, and that frame is attached to the wall.

Your torso rests where the beams cross. Your ankles and wrists at the top and the bottom. Bound, Catalina. You understand that, right?” I swallowed, then nodded, even though I knew he couldn’t see me.

“Bound and naked and unable to move. To do anything but feel. I want you to go there, Kat. Go there, take your clothes off, and position yourself on the cross.” I closed my eyes and imagined it. Imagined my steps, slow and hesitant.

Imagined putting my feet in place, leaning in, thrusting my arms up.

“It’s padded under your wrists and ankles and belly.

Do you feel that?” “Yes,” I said. I shifted in the seat, spreading my legs. A slow burn was starting to ease through me, simply from the power of my imagination and the anticipation of the words that were to come.

“Do you know why so many submissives enjoy being flogged?” “It feels good?” He laughed. “In a nutshell, yeah. But it’s deeper than that. And the truth is it doesn’t feel good right away.

Pleasure from pain, and you can’t get to the one without going through the other.” “Oh.” My voice sounded breathy, and just a little concerned. I reminded myself that I was in my car, with nary a flogger in sight. This was a test run. And this was Cole. And this would be fine.

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