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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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And if she doesn’t already know you adore her then you need to tell her. And if she already knows you should tell her more often.” “Bree’s in nursing school,” Cole said dryly.

“She has a very excellent bedside manner.” I laughed out loud, my earlier angst having completely disappeared. “It’s great to meet you, but I thought aunts were older.” When Cole had described his gang years to me last night, I’d pictured him taking care of two older women. Now I realized that he must have been like a father to Bree. Or at the very least like a big brother.

Bree hooked her arm through mine as she led the way through the lobby to the elegant bar next to the hotel’s signature restaurant. “Let me guess. Only child?” “Um, yeah.” “I’m Cole’s mother’s sister. She had him when she was fifteen, then died about five years later.” I nodded, remembering what Cole had told me about his mother. “I was born about five years after that.” She shrugged.

“My mom was really young when she had my sister, and she had complications when she had me.” “She had a stroke during the birth,” Cole said. “They think that may have contributed to the Alzheimer’s. She had Bree when she was forty-two and a few years later she was pretty much mentally gone.” “That’s so sad.” “It is,” Bree said. “And that’s another reason I’m more like Cole’s little sister than his aunt. He pretty much raised me and took care of my mom.” Cole caught my eye, then took my hand. “I should have told you she was younger, but it didn’t occur to me,” he said, obviously realizing that I’d been thrown a bit offkilter. “Bree is just Bree, and I didn’t think to explain that she was younger.” “Explain?” Bree asked, as sat down at one of the tables in the bar.

“Cole was telling me the story of his life last night,” I said.

“Oh, really?” Her brows lifted. “I hope that’s true.

Cole keeps too much of that stuff to himself, and there’s no reason to do that.” “Bree.” The warning note in Cole’s voice was unmistakable, and I couldn’t help but wonder what family secret rattled around in his closet that Bree so fervently believed he should set free.

Not Anita. Frankly I doubted that Bree knew that secret.

But something else.

Something that put that clipped, secretive tone in his voice.

“It’s not a state secret, Cole. And you know that I think it should be out in the open.” “This isn’t a discussion we’re having. Not right now.

Are we clear?” She rolled her eyes, and I bit back a grin. Secret or not, I liked the dynamic between these two. It was normal and human and a little bit sweet.

On impulse, I reached for his hand, then squeezed tight.

He looked at me, his expression mildly surprised.

“Sorry. I love her, but she pushes my buttons.” “She’s sitting right here,” Bree said.

“You two are wonderful,” I said, unable to keep the laughter out of my voice.

“I’m so glad to meet you, Bree. Really, I am.” “See that?” Bree said, aiming a triumphant smile toward Cole. “I knew I’d like this girl.” She cocked her head and looked at Cole.

“Don’t mess it up, okay?” “I’ll try my best,” he said dryly.

“Don’t worry,” I added. “I won’t let him.” “Good,” Bree said.

“Between the two of us, there just might be hope for him yet.” After two rounds of drinks and several more rounds of conversation about everything and nothing, Cole and I poured Bree into a taxi, then waved her off as the cab disappeared from view.

“I like her,” I said, though I was certain he’d already picked up on that little fact.

“She’s great.” “She is,” he agreed. “And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you ahead of time that we might get together with her. I wasn’t sure the timing would work out. But Bree’s incredibly important to me. And since you are, too, I really wanted you to meet her.” “I’m glad,” I said, though the words sounded thick with emotion.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t know how much you mean to me, Kat. It’s hardly a secret that you fill me up.” He held his hand out for me, and I took it, then came willingly when he drew me close.

“You’re my future,” he said, “and Bree’s my past. It made sense for you to meet.” “You’re going to make me cry.” He brushed his thumb under my eye, wiping away an errant tear that had escaped as if to prove my point.

“Walk with me,” he said, taking my hand as we walked down the sidewalk. “I wanted you to meet her first, but there’s more to the story I told you yesterday. It’s not something I talk about, but Bree’s right. You need to know. No,” he corrected. “I want you to know.” “All right,” I said, twining my fingers with his as we started to walk down the pristine Beverly Hills street.

“You know about my rages, the impulse-control issues. You know about the crack and my bitch of a mother and how much it all fucked me up for sex.” “I know what you’ve told me,” I said. “And I still don’t think you’re fucked up. I think you’re you. You’re the man I fell in love with, Cole.

And that man is solid.” There I went, telling him I loved him again. And he still hadn’t said the words back to me. But it didn’t matter. He needed to know how I felt.

More than that, I needed him to know. I wanted him to have my love to hold tight around him like a blanket when he told me these horrors. So that he could remember that no matter how bad it had been or might be, I would always be there.

And so what if he hadn’t said the words back to me?

Yes, I wanted to hear them out loud, but the truth was that he said them to me every day. Not in words, but in actions. In the way he talked to me. The way he took care of me. The way he treated me.

I thought of the wicked way that he’d fucked me last night. The myriad of ways in which he’d taken his pleasure. The things he’d done to bring me both pain and pleasure. And more than that, I thought of the reason why.

Because he wanted to take me higher. Because he wanted to mark me as his.

Cole August was in love with me whether he admitted it or not. And that simple reality not only made me happy, it made me proud.

“You didn’t know me as a child,” Cole continued. “I was wild. Anything would set me off. It was Bree who taught me control. It was Bree who kept me grounded.

Not so much because she did anything—hell, for most of that time, she was just a baby.

But it was the fact of her. The fact that there was this little person in my life, and I was responsible for her. Because by that time, my grandmother was broken. She was there— but she’d checked out. I was father and brother and best friend all rolled into one for Bree. And for the longest time, she was my world.” “She’s great,” I said. “I think she’s a walking testimonial to your exceptional parenting skills.” “Or to her own exceptional personality.” “That, too,” I agreed. “But there’s more to the story than your mutual admiration.” He paused under an awning. “Yeah. There is.” I waited, giving him time.

Then he reached out and touched my shoulder. Just a simple brush of a finger over the thin material of my shirt.

But I knew that he was taking stock. Making sure that I was real and this moment wasn’t going to evaporate. “I want to tell you everything,” he finally said. “Kat, you have to know—there’s no one else I’ve told all of this to. No one else knows everything that happened with Anita or everything I’m about to tell you. Not even Bree. Not even Tyler and Evan.” That fist that sometimes clenched around my heart started to close again, and I drew in a ragged breath as I nodded. And then, because I couldn’t not kiss him, I leaned forward and brushed my lips over his. “Thank you,” I said simply.

A small smile touched his lips, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He’d gone back into memories, and his words when they came seemed far away.

“Bree was raped,” he said flatly, without preamble.

“Beaten. Worked over like you wouldn’t believe.” “Oh, god. Cole, I’m so sorry.” “She was eight years old at the time. Eight. I was looking to find a way out. I’d pissed some people off, including a rival gang. Their punishment was for one of their new recruits to earn his stripes by raping that little girl.” His voice broke. “They almost destroyed one of the best people you will ever know because of me. Because they wanted to punish me.” “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t,” I repeated more harshly because I wanted him to hear me.

“Maybe not,” he said.

“But everything that happened afterward was.” “What happened?” I asked, certain that I could guess his answer.

“I lost it,” he said. “I completely flew off the handle.” He met my eyes. “I killed them. The fucker who raped her, and the co-captains of the gang who’d set him up to do it.” I swallowed, but I didn’t say anything. What could I say? That I understood? I did.

That the bastards who would do that to a little girl deserved it? I sure as hell thought so, but I knew damn well the courts didn’t.

And I knew that Cole had to live with the consequences of his actions each and every day.

“I can’t even remember making the decision to do it, but I can remember with absolute clarity how good it felt to smash my fist into their flesh. To feel their bones shatter. To snuff the life from each of them. I liked it, Kat.

Hell, I sought it out. I needed it. Because that was the only way to turn off the rage that had burst out of me like a goddamn geyser.” “They tortured a child.

You defended her. You stood up for her and went to the mat for her. And because you did, she’s grown up to be one hell of a woman.” He didn’t say anything, but he seemed to draw in my words like oxygen, as if simply having them there to hold on to made everything else just a little bit easier to handle.

“I was caught, of course.

If I’d been even halfway in my head, maybe I could have figured out a way to cover up what I’d done, but I couldn’t manage it in the state I was in. I was arrested. I was tried.

I was convicted. And that’s how I met Evan and Tyler.” “The scared straight camp? They sent you there even with three murder convictions?” “I had the diagnosed impulse control issues— thank you, crack baby syndrome,” he said with disgust. “And there was an experimental program running through the system then. They sealed my record because I was a juvenile and under the terms of the program, if a defendant is later arrested for homicide, the sealed file can be opened and used as evidence in the adult homicide case.” He shrugged. “In other words, I’ll never shake my past.” “You don’t have to shake it,” I said. “You just have to live with it. Like everybody else on the planet. But it’s done, and it’s behind you.

And didn’t you once tell me you preferred to live life moving forward?” “That sounds like something I’d say,” he admitted. “That doesn’t necessarily make it true or smart.” “Bullshit. You’re not going to kill anyone. Your past is sealed up and gone, and it’s going to stay that way. You just have to trust yourself to move forward. Or if you can’t trust yourself, then trust me. Because I trust you completely, and I’m a very smart woman.” As I hoped, he smiled. But it faded quickly. “I can’t imagine killing anyone intentionally now,” he said.

“But the darkness inside me hasn’t gone away. The impulse control issues that nailed me as a kid—as a teenager. They’re still all right there, and I know that any moment I can go completely off the rails. It’s like spending your life walking on dynamite.” “But you don’t go off the rails, Cole. Don’t you see?” “I’m fighting every damn day, Kat.” “But that’s the point.

You’re fighting. You’re winning.” I slid my arms around his waist and moved in close. “You have more control than you give yourself credit for.” “Someday I’m going to lose that battle and seriously hurt someone.” He hooked a finger under my chin and tilted my head up. “What if it’s you?” “Not possible. For one thing, you’re not going to lose it. You may not see how strong you are, but I do. For another thing, the only way you’ll hurt me is if you leave me.” I swallowed, feeling suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. “Don’t leave me, Cole,” I said, knowing that those words were stripping bare my soul. “Please don’t ever leave me.” “No,” he said, pulling me close. And though the word that he said was “never,” in my heart, I knew that the message was, I love you.

twenty-two Katrina Laron—domestic goddess.

That’s how I felt as I stood in the living room of my new house surrounded by pails of paint, drop cloths, brushes, and rollers.

The movers were scheduled for the next morning, and I was hoping to at least get the living room painted so that once the furniture arrived I could assemble one room and feel as though I had accomplished something.

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