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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 ...»

-- [ Page 32 ] --

Not that I’d be completely done with that room. I’d still need to deal with the floors, getting curtains, fixing the window panes that seemed likely to stick no matter what the weather, and all the other wonderful, happy, irritating quirks that came with home ownership.

I’d had the place for a grand total of three hours, and I was already desperately, hopelessly in love.

And speaking of desperately, hopelessly in love, I heard the familiar rhythm of Cole’s footsteps crossing the front porch, and I turned in time to see him open the screen door and step inside.

He carried two wrapped presents tucked under his arm —one big and one small. His other hand held tight to a toolbox on top of which he was balancing a bundle of roses.

“For me?” “No, I just like to carry presents and roses whenever I take my tools out. Makes the repair work seem more festive.” I rolled my eyes, and hurried to help him before he dropped everything—and to get a kiss.

“Congratulations,” he said, after he brushed his lips tenderly over mine. “You look beautiful. Home ownership suits you.” Considering my hair was shoved up into a baseball cap and I was wearing ancient paint-splattered cargo pants and an old Disneyland Tshirt, I knew he was lying.

But I still appreciated the thought.

“I don’t have anything to put the flowers in yet,” I said, looking around the room as if a stunning crystal vase would magically materialize. “But I think there’s a soda cup from Taco Bell in the trash. We can use that.” He went to dig it out and fill it with water while I unwrapped the flowers from paper and plastic. We put them on the hearth, then stood back and admired them.

“Definitely makes the place more homey.” “There’s more,” he said, nodding at the other two presents that were now on the floor.

I grinned up at him, feeling like a kid at Christmas. “You didn’t have to, but I’m thrilled you did.” He laughed, then pointed to the larger, flat one. “That one first.” I picked it up, easily able to tell that there was a framed piece of artwork hidden beneath the wrapping paper.

“I hope it’s a Cole August original,” I said. “Those things are just going to shoot up in value.” “The man’s got talent,” he said. “Go ahead. Open it.” I did, then gasped when I saw the image on the canvas —the image of me. This one was different from the one that hung in the gallery, and I hadn’t seen it in his studio. I was naked, my back facing the viewer, my hands flat against a red wall. My legs were spread just a bit, not so much as to be obscene, but enough to be suggestive. And there was no mistaking my tattoo. For that matter, anyone who might not be able to read it could easily pick the words up from the delicate script on the wall. Ad Astra.

To the stars.

“It’s amazing,” I said sincerely. “Stunning and provocative. How on earth did you do this so quickly? I mean, when did you find the time?” “It’s not new. I painted it last year.” He met my eyes, smiling slightly when he saw my obvious surprise. “It’s been hanging in my office at Destiny. I thought it was better suited for here.” “A year? But—” I glanced back at the portrait, my throat suddenly tight with tears.

“We wasted a lot of time, Cole.” He came to me, then drew me into his arms. “Then we’ll have to be sure not to waste any more.” For a moment, he just held me. Then he kissed the top of my head. “I want you to open the other one, too, but first I have some news. The land deal’s done, deeds filed, property away from Ilya Muratti’s hot little hands and into the coffers of the newly formed Casino Building and Investment Trust, of which Damien Stark is the primary shareholder and I am the president and secondary investor.” “And Damien doesn’t mind going head-to-head with Muratti?” “We’re not. We didn’t double-cross him, didn’t steal the property out from under him. We bought it in an arm’s-length transaction from a seller who had been reluctant to sell to Muratti.” He took my hand, then lifted it to his lips and kissed it. “As an added precaution, Damien asked his attorney to call Michael Muratti, Ilya’s son. Stark has a lot of connections, so it was easy for him to say that he heard through the grapevine that Ilya’s plan to forge the will fell through—not in so many words, of course—and to ask if there was going to be blowback. Because if there was, Damien might want to unload the property.” “And?” “Michael’s not remotely interested in playing the revenge game. They lost the property, we acquired it. End of story. And he’s taking his father back to Italy for a family reunion. He’s hoping to convince the old man to retire there. I want to keep your dad cocooned in The Drake for a few more weeks —at least until Muratti’s out of the country—but I think this thing is about to blow over.” “Blow over?” I repeated.





“To the tune of millions of dollars. Damien must have put in a fortune. For that matter, you must have, too.

Good god,” I said, as that truth settled fully over me for the first time. “I can’t believe you did that for me. For my father.” “First of all, I would do anything for you. Second of all, neither Damien Stark nor I are in the habit of throwing money out the window. The price was high, yes. But the land is prime. To be honest, I expect that your father’s poor judgment is going to end up adding another several million to my portfolio.” “Oh.” I nodded. “I’m still not crazy about you guys taking such a risk, but that makes it better. Here’s to you two getting even more stinking rich,” I said, then held up an imaginary glass to toast.

He clinked an imaginary glass right back at me, then handed me the second present. It was a solid rectangle wrapped in pretty pink paper, and when I shook it I heard absolutely nothing.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said.

“Then I guess you have to open it.” I did, carefully at first, but then losing patience and ripping the paper right off.

The rectangle, it turned out, was a velvet box with a stiff metal hinge. A jewelry box.

I looked at Cole curiously, but he was giving nothing away. I opened it, then gasped at the stunning choker that gleamed against the black velvet. It was made up of dozens of squares of gold, each of which had been pounded flat and were hinged together so that the ornament conjured thoughts of Egyptian princesses.

“Cole, it’s stunning.” “I made it with the idea that it would be worn by you.

I promise, it will be even more spectacular once it’s around your neck.” “You made this?” I stroked my finger over the intricate necklace, a bit awed by the detail and time that had gone into it.

“I did. And now,” he said, taking it gently from my hand, “I want to see it on you.” At his direction, I lifted my hair and turned so that he could fasten it around my neck. There was no mirror in the house yet, so I used the tiny compact I keep in my purse to take a look. Even from that awkward perspective, I could see that the necklace was more than a piece of fine jewelry. It was art. It was a statement.

It was a collar—and it was mine.

More than that, it meant that I was his.

I brushed my fingers over it, trembling a bit as I did because the gift had moved me. “Thank you,” I said softly. “It’s perfect.” “Wear it tonight,” he said.

“To the party?” I asked, referring to the cocktail party on Evan’s yacht.

“Yes, and then I want you to wear it after.” “After?” “The Firehouse,” he said, the words simple but underscored with heat. “If you still want to go, then I’ll take you tonight.” Except for the water that surrounded us, the yacht that Evan kept docked at Burnham Harbor—His Girl Friday—might as well have been a luxury condo.

Granted, that was a slight exaggeration, but the truth was that the boat was huge and comfortable and more than capable of hosting this party of thirty to fifty guests, the number being in flux because it was an open-house style function, with friends flitting in and out to get drinks and offer wedding congratulations before heading out for their own exciting night on the town.

Then again, maybe I was projecting. Just because I expected my night with Cole to be exciting—what with the promise of the Firehouse—I could hardly be certain that my fellow partygoers had equally engaging plans.

We’d only been at the party for half an hour, and already I was getting antsy.

Unfair, I suppose, considering this cocktail party was in celebration of my best friend’s upcoming wedding, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wanted out of there. I wanted to explore this dungeon. I wanted to know its secrets.

I wanted to understand what Cole wanted and needed.

Most of all, I was just too damn curious.

And the two Cosmopolitans I’d already downed hadn’t chilled me out at all. Instead I had a nice little buzz going. The kind that made me feel just bold enough that—if I wasn’t careful—I’d sidle up to Cole and whisper inappropriate comments in his ear just to see if that got him moving faster.

It was a tempting plan— and one I was seriously considering— when Flynn caught up to me on deck. “Hey,” I said, throwing my arms around him. “I’ve missed you.” Not that it had been that long, but I was in the house now, and he was still in the apartment.

And the truth was that most of my time was spent with Cole, which meant that roommate time got pushed to the wayside.

Unfair, maybe, but thus was the bloom of new love.

“Are you almost all packed up?” I asked. “The lease runs out pretty soon.” “Yeah, I was going to talk to you about that.” I frowned. “What’s wrong?” “I decided to go ahead and keep the apartment. It’s not that I don’t love rooming with you, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoy having my own place.” Warning bells started clanging in my head. “Flynn, having your own place isn’t worth—well, you know.” He shook his head, managing to look both amused and chastised. “I’m not. I swear. But with the new job, I can afford it.” “New job?” He cocked his head, eyeing me strangely. “Cole didn’t tell you? I’m managing the main bar at Destiny.” “Oh.” I realized I was standing there, a little shellshocked, then pulled him into a hug. “Sorry. I was just— anyway, that’s wonderful,” I finally managed. I meant it, too. Destiny was a great place to work, and I was sure that Flynn would make much better money. What had thrown me for a loop—and still had me reeling—was the fact that I wasn’t as sure about Cole’s motives. And considering he’d neglected to tell me this little tidbit of news, I had a feeling that his motives weren’t entirely pure.

“We had an opening,” Cole said simply when I cornered him a few moments later.

“Uh-huh. And that offer had nothing to do with the fact that you weren’t happy with my roommate situation?” “Seems like a win-win,” he said to me. “Flynn gets better pay and better benefits.

And you,” he added, running his finger over the intricate collar that I wore, “have a house all to yourself.

Honestly, the possibilities are endless.” I tried to maintain my stern expression, but it wasn’t any use.

“Speaking of,” he said, tapping the necklace, “I think you and I should make the circle and say our goodbyes.” We did, pausing a bit longer when we reached Angie, not just to thank her for the party, but to wait with her while the harbor security escorted away a wiry little man she’d seen sitting on one of the benches along the pier.

“At first I thought he was a guest,” she said. “But then he just sat and sat and stared at the boat. It creeped me out.” The security guard who escorted the man away called Angie right before we left to tell her that the man was a tourist from Kansas who apparently thought that watching a party on some rich man’s boat was the kind of event that rounded out his bucket list.

“People are strange,” Angie said philosophically, and since I couldn’t argue with that, I didn’t even try.

I was still thinking about that statement when Cole pulled the Range Rover into the valet slot at the Firehouse.

He came around and opened the door for me, and I stood there for a moment, just looking up at the nondescript building that hid what I imagined were dozens of fantasies and adventures. The possibilities both intrigued me and made me nervous, and I looked to Cole for support.

He took my hand automatically, but I felt distance, not the support I craved. My stomach twisted unpleasantly, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was about me. If he was afraid that I couldn’t handle whatever went on in there.

“Mr. August,” a pretty young blonde wearing next to nothing said as we entered.

“Welcome back.” She smiled at me, then returned her attention to him. “Your usual room?” “Yes,” he said, and I had to bite back a frown because of the stiffness in his voice. A stiffness that seemed to increase once we were checked in and he pressed his hand against my back to lead me through a doorway and into a darkened corridor.



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