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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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We were into everything, but drugs mostly. That and guarding our turf and all the bullshit that goes along with that life. Even then I knew it was bullshit,” he said, meeting my eyes. “But I also knew it was the only option I had.” “It must have been so hard.” I could picture him, so young, his innocence stripped from him. Tears pricked my eyes, and I brutally brushed them away.

“Wasn’t easy,” he said.

“But I didn’t mean for this to be a lesson in gang culture.” “You wanted to tell me about Anita,” I prompted.

“She was my rite of passage,” he said, in the kind of flat voice that made me want to pull him close and hold him tight.

“What does that mean?” “It means that no one gets a cut of any real income without being fully inducted.

And no one is inducted until they’ve popped their cherry.

More than that, though. One night wasn’t enough. No, you had to be fully initiated. And that’s where Anita came in.” “She was your first.” “In so many ways.” His voice was raw. Hateful. “She liked pain. Serious pain.

Giving and receiving.

Cigarette burns. Wire pulled tight around your cock.

Knives. Straws jammed up your urethra. God knows what up your ass. She was a sadistic, masochistic bitch, and she tied every single goddamn orgasm to one of her fucked up games.” I shook my head, not really willing to believe that what he was saying could be true. “She made you—” “There’s a parabola of pain, you know. After a period of time, it turns to pleasure. Not just the kind of pain I’ve shared with you.

But real pain. Torture pain.

The kind of pain that pulls state secrets and turns spies.

But you cross a line, and that torture doesn’t work anymore, because the victim has slipped over into euphoria. So if you want to fuck up somebody’s sexual wiring, then you take a kid— a kid who’s barely had a hard-on much less an orgasm —and you wind him up and jack him off over and over.

You make it hurt, then you make it feel good, then you make it hurt again—” His voice had gone hard, and now it broke. “Shit,” he said.

“You don’t have to tell me any more,” I said.

“But I do, because with me there was more than just the way her fucked up games messed with my mind and rewired everything that gets me hard. She pushed my limits with sex—and couple that with the shit my mother left me with—impulse control problems, anger management, all the bullshit that lingers when you’ve got that goddamn ‘crack baby’ label.

Makes me like a goddamn bomb just waiting to explode and you can damn well bet that sex is one of the triggers.” He paced to the end of the room, then came back and started the circle again. I watched him, my heart breaking for the boy he’d been and the man he’d become.

Finally, he stopped in front of me. “Bottom line is I’m fucked up.” “No,” I said, standing so that I could press my hands to his face. “The bottom line is that you’re the strongest man I know.” “Kat—” “No,” I said fiercely.

“Don’t you dare argue with me. Maybe you are fucked up. So what? I mean, who isn’t? But you’re not screwed up like that. You don’t take it that far. You don’t explode— not really. You don’t hurt yourself or me like that.” I could see that he wanted to interrupt, and so I pressed a fingertip to his lips. “You’ve defied your past in so many ways, Cole.” I kept my voice gentle, hoping he could understand how much I meant these words. “You’re not the least bit like Anita.

She’s inhuman. But you’re not. You’re just the opposite,” I said as I drew my arms around him and pressed my cheek to his chest. “I know, because you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” His body was stiff against mine at first, and then I felt his lips brush my hair and his arms go around my waist. He relaxed, his body molding to mine. “Christ, Kat,” he said.

“You unravel me.” My heart swelled, and I clung to him a moment longer, then pulled back so that I could see his face.

“Come back to bed,” I said.

“I want you to hold me.” “How could I ever let go?” I moved to the bed and drew him down, then lost myself to the simple feel of his arms around me and his skin against mine. “I like this.

Just being next to you. It’s nice.” “Yes,” he said after a moment. “It is.” He stroked his fingertips lightly over my shoulder. “The hard and the wild burns through you, so intense you never want to let it go. But these soft moments... they’re what give you the fuel to burn in the first place.” I shivered, moved almost to tears by his words. “You really are an artist,” I said, my voice soft. “You paint beauty not just in pictures but in words.” “Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that you’re my muse.” Since I liked that thought, I closed my eyes and tried to drift off. One question kept bugging me, though, and so I finally gave in to my curiosity. “Cole? Are you still awake?” “Mmm.” “About the pain—do you need it, too? I mean, being on the receiving end?” For a moment he was silent, and when he answered, his words were oddly flat, as if he feared he might scare me off if he made too much of the question, much less the answer. “I have,” he said.

“But that’s not something I’d ask you to do.” I thought about that, then rolled over. I pressed my hand to his chest, wanting to feel the beat of his heart thrumming through me. I was awed by all he’d told me. Not only the bare facts but the emotions and need behind it.

“If you do need it,” I whispered, “you only have to ask me. You say I’m yours, Cole, but you’re mine, too.” I drew in a breath, hoping he understood how completely I meant these words. “And I will always give you what you need.” “I know,” he said. “Thank you.” I nodded, satisfied. He still hadn’t said that he loved me despite my confession.

But he’d told me his secrets.

He’d trusted me with his past.

He’d opened his heart, and he’d let me claim it.

And with a man like Cole, who holds his secrets close, that was the essence of love.

twenty-one I woke to Cole’s large hands brushing over my naked body.

“Mmm. Good morning.” “Go back to sleep,” he whispered. “I’m heading downtown to meet with Charles. I didn’t want to wake you, but I couldn’t leave without touching you.” I took his hand and pressed my lips to his palm.

“I’m glad.” I propped myself up on my elbow. “You sure you don’t want me to come?” “To come?” he repeated with a devious gleam in his eye. “Always, and about a thousand different ways. But if you mean to join me downtown, then no. It’s not necessary. Not if you trust me.” “You know I do.” “I’ll tell you the entire plan once it’s firm. But I want to make sure everything is on track. That Charles didn’t come across a snag.” He reached out and ran a strand of my hair through his fingers. “I want to take care of this for you, Kat. I want you to know that you can come to me and say ‘I need this,’ and be certain that whatever it is, I will make it right for you.” I felt a tightening in my chest, a sweet sensation, like a hug to my soul. “I already know that.” I rose up on my knees to kiss him lightly.

“Now go do your thing.” I watched him go, sighing a bit because he was wearing a suit and, honestly, the man looked too damned amazing.

Once the door clicked shut behind him, I considered going back to sleep, but the allure of Southern California was too much, and within the hour I was showered, changed, and full up on a bagel, cream cheese, and at least a gallon of coffee.

I didn’t have a car, but I did have cash, and I asked one of the taxi drivers to simply drive me around Beverly Hills. It turned out to be even better than I anticipated, as he knew the flats intimately, and pointed out at least a dozen houses that had once been owned by various studio darlings from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

He went up into the hills next, and the drive was much less interesting, since most of the homes were behind massive stone fences or set so far back from iron gates that there was nothing to see. But once we reached Mulholland Drive, I was in awe. The day was unusually clear according to my driver, and I could see all of the west side spread out below me, not to mention the roofs of some homes that looked like they could house every resident of a small country, but were probably only occupied by one couple, one child, and a very spoiled dog.

By the time I returned to the Beverly Wilshire, I was deep in thought about real estate and the Chicago market, and how I could position myself to sell houses like that—the kind that could keep a commissioned agent living high for a solid year.

I half-regretted my plan to abandon the grift in favor of this new career. If I combined the two, I could probably make a killing.

The thought amused me, and I was grinning when I got on the elevator. My grin widened when I checked my phone and realized it was almost one. With any luck, Cole would be waiting for me in the room.

He wasn’t, though, and I swallowed my disappointment as I stepped inside and tried to decide what I wanted to do. I was debating between going downstairs for a drink or taking a taxi down to the beach in Santa Monica and simply texting Cole to meet me there, when I noticed that the message light on the phone was blinking.

I knew it wasn’t from Cole, since he’d call me on my cell. But I hit the button to play the messages on speaker just in case it was important, then went a little bit numb when I heard the soft, female voice.

“Hey, Cole sweetie! It’s Bree. I can’t wait to see you, but I need to change our plans up a bit. I left a message on your cell phone, too, but it keeps going straight to voicemail without any sort of greeting from you, and I’m afraid I wrote the number down wrong and I’ve been bothering someone else.” She laughed then, light and airy, and I felt a sudden need to punch her in the nose.

Who the hell was this woman? And what plans was she talking about?

“Anyway, hopefully you’ll get one of my messages. Call me back, okay? Love you! Oh, and here’s my number in case you need it again,” she added, then rattled off a number in the 310 area code, which I’d recently learned included LA.

I pressed the button to end the message, then just sat on the bed staring at the phone like it was a wild thing about to bite me. Then I played the message again. And then one more time after that.

It never changed. Never gave a clue who this woman was or why she was calling my boyfriend “sweetie.” And the message sure as hell didn’t give me a hint as to why Cole hadn’t said a single thing about her.

I told myself that Cole was not sleeping with this woman—he’d told me as much, right? No Michelle. No anyone else.

So it was ridiculous for me to be getting worked up.

Except, dammit, I was worked up. And even if this woman was a former fuck buddy, shouldn’t he have told me?

And considering that my name was on the room registration just as big and as bold as Cole’s, didn’t that mean that I hadn’t violated any major rules of etiquette by listening to it?

I banged the heel of my hand against my forehead in the hopes that I might actually knock some sense into myself. Because I could either sit there for another half hour and make up another dozen or so ridiculous excuses—or I could simply pick up the phone, dial the woman’s number, and politely explain that Cole was at a meeting.

And then equally politely ask who the hell she was.

I chose door number two —then almost choked when the voice that answered was Cole’s.

“Kat,” he said, his tone apologetic. “I’m sorry I’m late. And I’m sorry for what you must be thinking.” I opened my mouth to reply, realized I didn’t have a clue what to say, and shut it again.

“Catalina?” The apology was gone, replaced by worry.

“Are you there?” “Yes.” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Sure. Yes.

I’m here.” “Come on down. There’s someone I want you to meet.” “Down? You’re here?” “In the lobby.” “Oh,” I said as the universe tentatively righted itself. Because surely he wasn’t inviting me down to meet his mistress. “I’ll be right there.” When the doors to the elevator opened, I saw Cole standing next to a stunningly beautiful woman with ebony skin, legs that seemed to go on forever, and a friendly, welcoming smile. She looked barely over twenty.

And Cole had his arm around her shoulders.

When he saw me, he shifted, sliding his arm off and replacing it with a proprietary hand to her back.

I stepped off the elevator, my eyes darting from him to her, and I’m certain that my confusion must have shown.

“Katrina Laron, I’d like you to meet my aunt, Bree Crenshaw.” Bree held out her hand, that amazing smile growing even wider. “I am so glad to meet you. Cole just won’t shut up about you.” “Bree...” She laughed. “It’s true.

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