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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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I realize it’s not one of the featured pieces, but I hope you’re going to show more of the artist’s work. It’s compelling.” I leaned closer, looking for a signature on the canvas or an information card on the wall. I found neither.

“Who’s the artist?” “Don’t worry, blondie,” Cole said, his eyes flicking quickly to the painting.

“We’ll keep him around.” Now I was certain I heard amusement in his voice, and since I wasn’t sure what the joke was, it ticked me off.

I cocked my head, feeling more in control now that he was irritating me. “Okay, tell me. What am I missing?” He moved to step in front of me, blocking the painting.

Hell, blocking everything. He filled all of my senses, making me a little drunk merely from his proximity.

From the sight of him before me and the scent of his cologne, all spice and wood and male. Even the echo of his voice played in my head, those radio-quality tones making me want to shiver.

I didn’t have his touch, but the sensation of his hand upon my skin still lingered, and I clung tight to the memory. And as for taste— well, a girl could only hope.

Eternity passed in the space of seconds, and when he spoke, there was a musing note to his voice, as if he were speaking more to himself than to me. “How do you do it?” “Do what?” I asked, but by the time the words escaped my lips, the spell was broken, and it was as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

“It’s an important night for Tyler and me,” he said, his voice now tight with formality. “I’m glad you came, but I should get back to the rest of the guests.” The abrupt change in his tone disappointed me, but I clung greedily to the words themselves, and tried to ignore the rest. He’d said I’m glad. Not we’re glad.

And I, apparently, had reached a new level of pathetic if I’d sunk so low as to be analyzing pronouns.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I said, hoping my own voice didn’t reveal the loose grip I had on my sanity.

He flashed me that killer smile, then turned toward the main gallery. But after only two steps, he stopped, then looked back at me. “By the way, you owe me,” he said, and this time there was no denying the humor on his face.

“Oh, really? And why is that?” “How is it you started working here three months ago and I didn’t notice?

That’s not like me at all. And, frankly, Kat, if you’d spent that much time at my side, I assure you it would have caught my attention.” That spark of heat was back in his voice, but I barely noticed it. Instead, I’d turned a little cold. A string of curses whipped through my mind, and I had to force myself not to spit out a choice one or two.

Instead, I did what I’d been trained my whole life to do—I got my shit together and ran with it. “Oh my god, Cole, I’m so sorry. I meant to mention weeks ago that the mortgage company might be calling, but I got caught up in helping Angie with wedding prep stuff, and now I’m closing next week and I’ve been packing, and then—” “It’s okay,” he said. “I get it.” “It’s just that my hours at the coffee shop haven’t ever been steady, and I didn’t want the underwriting people to think I don’t have the means to make my payments.” “It’s okay,” he repeated.

“Buying a house is a very big deal. It’s cool. It’s been well over a week since they called, and I verified everything. If they haven’t requested any more information from you by now, then I’d say you’re good to go.” He met my eyes once more, trapping me in his gaze just a little too long for comfort. Whatever humor had been in his face before had vanished. Instead, I saw only a vibrant, sensual intensity. “But like I said, you owe me.” I swallowed, and despite the dryness in my mouth, I managed to form words.

“Whatever you want,” I said, and I could only hope that he understood the full meaning of my words.

His gaze lingered a moment longer. Then he inclined his head as if in dismissal. “I’ll see you back in the main gallery.” Once again he turned and walked away from me.

This time, he didn’t look back.

two It took me a few minutes to gather myself before I returned to the party, and the moment I slipped around the rope barrier and felt the press of gaiety and chatter all around me, I knew that I should have taken a few minutes more.

You owe me, he’d said.

Whatever you want, I’d promised.

Did he understand how completely I meant those words? Had it really been desire I’d seen when he’d looked at me? And, if so, what was he going to do about it?

For that matter, what was I going to do about it?

Apparently I’d just come full circle. I’d started the evening with the intention of seducing Cole August. And despite the electricity that had crackled between us, I don’t think I’d come even the slightest bit closer to that goal.





How’s that for a complete failure to meet a mission objective?

Once again, I was not doing my father proud.

Maybe if I thought of Cole as a mark rather than as a man..

.

I started to run my fingers through my hair, then caught myself before I accidentally pulled it out of the clip. Since I desperately wanted something to do with my hands, I waved down a svelte, dark-haired waitress. I spent a moment debating between a spring roll and sushi. I ended up taking one of each, then cursed myself. Food, Cole, my whole damn life.

Apparently I was doomed to shoulder the curse of indecisiveness.

Great.

I moved toward a wall to get some breathing space away from the throng and tried to find Cole. It wasn’t hard. He’d moved away from the crush of bodies and now stood in an alcove beside a portly man with a ruddy, unattractive baby face. The man was talking animatedly, his skin becoming more splotchy by the moment and his hands fluttering as if in punctuation of his words.

Cole showed no reaction at all—which told me right there that he was pissed as hell and doing a damn fine job of holding it in. Cole’s temper was famous, and whoever this man was, he wasn’t scoring points by threatening to incite an explosion during the gala.

I considered going over and interrupting—if nothing else I figured that should distract Cole’s current nemesis. But fortunately, the gallery’s business manager, Liz, slipped up, offered the man a drink, and artfully led him away.

Cole watched them go, and I saw his fist clench at his side. I started to count, and when I got to ten, Cole pushed away from the wall.

Anger management tricks, I knew, and he was putting them all to use.

I wondered what he was angry about. I didn’t, however, wonder enough to go ask him. No, I was much more selfish than that. I was still focused on my own problem with Cole—and it wasn’t his temper that I wanted to see explode.

I considered calling Flynn, my friend and roommate of the last few months. At best, he’d have a useful guy perspective on the whole mess. At worst, he’d offer a few soothing words. But I knew he was working tonight —if he wasn’t, he’d be at the gala. Flynn wasn’t one to miss a party. Especially not one that serves free alcohol.

Even a girl perspective would be good, but Angie and Evan had been doublebooked tonight, and had already left to meet her parents for a weddingplanning dinner, and Tyler’s girlfriend, Sloane, hadn’t yet arrived.

I knew she was working late because last night over martinis she’d told me about the surveillance job she was on, but I’d thought she would be here by now. Selfish, maybe, but we’d become tight, and I wanted her around for moral support.

I glanced at my watch, then frowned. Then I told myself that it wasn’t fair to be annoyed when Sloane was off doing her job and had no clue that I was contemplating seduction and needed handholding.

Then—thankfully—the gal pal fairies took pity on me, because when I glanced toward the front of the gallery, I saw her pulling open the glass door and gliding over the threshold.

Despite the late hour, the air was stifling from an unseasonably hot May. Even so, Sloane looked bright and fresh and pretty—like the girl next door who just happened to have the hard edge and cynicism of a former cop. I started to head in that direction, then stopped when I saw Tyler approach her, his eyes bright with appreciation.

He pulled her close, and despite the room full of people, his welcoming kiss was long and lingering, and I swear I could see her glow from all the way across the room.

My stomach tightened in sudden, unexpected longing. I wanted to be that girl— precious in a man’s eyes. And with the power to bring him to his knees.

No. Not just any man.

Cole.

I watched as Sloane brushed her hand possessively over Tyler’s arm, then whispered something to him. He laughed, then kissed her cheek. She moved away from him to enter the party, and he stood for a moment, his gaze lingering on her as he watched her go.

Since I was watching Tyler, I didn’t realize that Sloane had been coming my way until she eased up beside me. “Any news on the house?” “We close next week,” I said. “I’m suffering from mild terror that it’s all going to get ripped out from under me. Like we’ll find out that something is horribly wrong with the foundation. Or the sellers will back out. Or the loan will fall through.” The house had started as a whim. My natural state is to be in constant motion, everything from my habit of fidgeting to my general tendency to uproot myself every few years and move to a new city.

Over the last six years, though, I’d eased off that last trait. Instead of bouncing out of Chicago, I’d just bounced between apartments.

A few months ago, I decided that living in a house could be fun. I’d started out looking solely at rentals, but once I saw the tiny twobedroom frame house, I knew it was like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. All it needed was a little love. More important, I knew it had to be mine.

I hadn’t even realized I’d been contemplating ownership until I’d picked up the real estate agent’s flyer, but I was tired of feeling uprooted. I wanted to settle. I wanted... more.

And now I was on the verge of having it.

Honestly, I liked the way that felt.

Sloane’s brow was furrowed as she pondered my words. “You’ve had the inspections, the tenants have already moved out, and the sellers live—where? New Mexico, right? And I think you would have heard by now if there was something wrong with the loan.” She narrowed her eyes. “The employment stuff checked out okay, right?” “Yeah, but talk about a snafu. The call must have come when Liz wasn’t here.” I’d hit Liz up before I told my little fib on the loan application, and she’d promised to back me if the underwriters called.

“Shit. What happened?

Tyler didn’t say a thing to me.” “Apparently Cole got the call.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, really? When?” “It’s been over a week.” “And he didn’t say anything?” “Not until just a few minutes ago,” I said.

She held her hands out, gesturing for me to continue.

“Hello? What did he say?” “That I owed him,” I admitted.

Her laugh was filled with pure delight. “Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it?” “Excuse me?” “If he said you owed him, you just need to ask him how he wants to get paid.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “And what exactly are we talking about?” “Oh, please, Kat. Don’t play coy. I’m a cop, remember? I know how to read people. And that goes for you, too, Katrina Laron, even though you think you’re impenetrable.” I did think that, and it was a little disconcerting to know that I was wrong. This was why I’d spent most of my life avoiding making close friends. They got into the cracks of your life, knew you too well, and made you vulnerable. But Sloane was right—as a former cop, she was used to watching people and noting the details. More than that, it wasn’t that long ago that she’d been in a similar position, plotting out a way to seduce Tyler Sharp.

Considering she and Tyler were now desperately in love and deliriously happy, I had to figure she understood the game.

She looked me up and down, the movement very deliberate. “Nice dress.” Her mouth curved in a wicked grin. “Seems like the kind of thing Cole would appreciate.” “Bitch,” I said, but I was laughing.

“So other than the dress, what have you got in your repertoire?” “Isn’t that the question of the day? You’re right about the intentions,” I admitted.

“But I’m doing a piss-poor job on the execution.” I ran my fingers through my hair, remembered the clip too late, and cursed.

I gave her the rundown of what had happened in the gallery while I freed my hair and fluffed it with my fingers.

“But I’m not sure if he was really interested, or if it’s just me being hopeful.” “Please tell me you aren’t really that naive,” she said.



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