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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 then—yes—the sharp sting of the first blow, and then the second, and on and on, with the pain rising, but the pleasure building, too.

Growing from beneath the pain, pushing up like lava from a volcano that would soon burst forth and cover everything.

And it did. Adrenaline, endorphins, magic fairy dust.

I didn’t know the reason or care. All I knew was that I’d crossed a line, just as I had in the fantasy. And just as Cole had talked me through in the car, now he was leading me through in the flesh.

I was floating. I was lost. I was rapturous. And the fact that this kind of sex, crossing over from light kink to a little bit harder stuff, drew me in so fully, only cemented my certainty that Cole and I fit together perfectly.

A fact that he proved in a much more literal way when he took me off the cross. I moaned against him, feeling alive and intensely aroused.

My body might be limp and languid, but my sex was hot and wet and my breasts were tender and sensitive.

He put me facedown on the bed, a position I thought was to spare my shoulders, still sore from the flails, but turned out to be so much more.

He drew his hand slowly over me, stroking me, then bending over to kiss me. He spread my legs, then thrust hard inside me, his hand on my clit making me spiral even higher and faster.

He felt warm and wonderful and familiar inside me—or at least he did until I felt the lube on his fingers and then the press of his thumb against my ass. “I’m taking you here,” he said. “I need to have you every way,” he said. “I need to feel you tight around me.” I nodded, wordless, because while he’d been talking, his thumb had been doing amazing things, teasing and stretching me, making me ready, so that when he pressed his cock to my ass, I was ready—at least as much as I could be.

He pushed inside me.

Slowly, gently, but I sucked in a sharp breath anyway.

“Does it hurt?” “Yes,” I said truthfully.

“But it feels good,” I said, also truthfully.

“I’ll go slow,” he said, “but oh, god, baby, you feel amazing.” “Don’t stop,” I demanded.

“I want it all.” “Greedy.” “Yes,” I agreed, and sucked in another breath as he pushed even farther inside me. Again I felt the pain, and then again—but after that something miraculous happened, because the pain shifted again to pleasure, just as it had on the cross.

“Harder,” I demanded.

“Please, Cole, I want the rest of you.” “If you’re sure,” he said, and when I nodded, he thrust inside, sending swirls of pain and pleasure curling through me.

His own moan of pleasure matched mine, and he fucked me hard, just like he’d said he would. Hard and deep and fast until he exploded inside me, then collapsed against me, pulling me close and lazily stroking my clit to bring me over, too.

After, I lay curled in his arms. I was facing the cross, and I simply looked at it for a moment. “Thank you,” I said to the man pressed against me.

“For what?” “For everything,” I said.

“But right now, for that.” I nodded toward the cross. “I felt things I never felt. I feel alive. I feel—” I cut myself off along with the word I’d intended to say. Loved.

Instead I ended the thought with “special.” We stayed like that for a few moments, and then Cole shifted on the bed. He got off, and I watched him walk to the cross. He paused in front of it, then turned to look back at me.

“You’re going to have to fasten the straps,” he said, and those simple words made my body go weak.

“Cole, are you sure?” “I want it,” he said. “I want it from you. If you’re willing to give it.” I nodded, though I couldn’t deny that I was nervous. And when Cole moved into place, I hurried to fasten his ankles, his wrists. I looked in the mirror and saw him there, naked and bound, and felt something shift inside me, like the sensation of falling off a curb. This man —this strong, wounded man —was giving himself to me.

His trust, his emotions, his soul, his heart.

I was humbled and just a little terrified, afraid that I wouldn’t do this right. Afraid that somehow I would make this thing between us wrong instead of beautiful.

In the mirror, his eyes caught mine, and I saw understanding there.

I lifted a shoulder in what might have been an apology.

“I don’t want to do it wrong,” I admitted, my voice soft to hide how foolish I felt.

“You won’t, baby,” he said. “Take it slow.” I did, trying to emulate what he’d done, wanting to give Cole the same pleasure that he’d given me. I held the flogger, then flicked it the way he’d showed me, wincing a bit at my first two attempts, which qualified as supremely lame.

But Cole’s eyes met mine, and the passion I saw there gave me strength. I tried again, this time feeling the impact—and knew that I’d done it right from Cole’s moan of deep, pure pleasure.

It took me a few more strokes to find a rhythm, and my strokes were nowhere as accurate as Cole’s, but I managed it anyway. And as I did—as I watched the flails sting his skin—I felt a raw power build inside me, one that seemed to match the intensity of his moans and the rising of his own passion.

“Kat,” he said after a while, his voice pulling me from the sensual trance I’d slipped into. I looked into the mirror, and his eyes met mine. And the demand I saw there stripped me raw, stealing the power and putting Cole back in charge, and that despite the fact that he was still strapped spreadeagled to the cross.

“Get me down,” he said, and I hurried to comply. As soon as he was free, he pulled me to him, then picked me up and carried me to the bed.

“Do you have any idea how amazing that was?” he asked, his voice full of wonder.

I nodded, unable to speak.

Certain that tears would fall if I tried. Because it was amazing, and so was this— this closeness that I felt with him now. This new intimacy that couldn’t be supplanted even by the way he held me, the way he spread me, the way he sank deep inside me.

And then, when we shattered together and he gathered me close again in his arms, I let the tears fall freely, too overwhelmed to stop them.

“Oh, baby,” he said, stroking my hair and kissing my temple. “No, no, it’s okay. You did beautifully.

That was exceptional. It’s okay,” he added, then repeated it again and again as I tried to get the tears to stop long enough for me to speak.

“No, no,” I finally said.

“I’m not upset. Truly. For someone who sees me so well, how can you not know that?” I drew in a ragged breath. “I’m the opposite of upset. I’m—I’m in awe. I’m overwhelmed. I’m still reeling from how close I feel to you right now.” “Catalina.” That was all he said before he kissed me, hard and possessive, drawing me in and holding me close.

When he pulled away, there was a sharp intensity in his face that I didn’t think I’d ever seen before and hoped that I would never forget.

It warmed me and lifted me up—but it was his words that knocked the world out from under me.

“I love you.” I clung to him, my heart fluttering. “Cole.” It was the only word I could manage.

He stroked my hair and searched my face, then pressed kisses to my forehead. “Oh, baby,” he murmured. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” “Sorry?” I heard the squeak of a question in my voice. “For saying you love me?” “For not saying it before. I thought you knew.” “I did. I do.” I closed my eyes and felt warm tears spill down my cheeks. “I just wasn’t sure you’d ever say it.” “I’ve said it every time I touched you,” he said. “Every time I looked at you.” “You did,” I agreed. And then, happily, I added, “I love you, too. More than I can say.

More even than I can imagine.” He kissed me, slowly and gently. “Do you remember when I told you that sex can mess us up?” he asked, thoughtfully.

I nodded.

“It’s true,” he said, “but I should have qualified it.

Random sex. Wrong sex.

Unattached sex. All of that can get in your head and screw with you. But what we have—sex mixed with love— sweetheart, I think that’s what makes us whole.” twenty-three The orange glow of the late afternoon sun gave the space under the McGinley Pavilion in the Chicago Botanic Garden a sensual, magical quality, as if all of us gathered for Angie and Evan’s wedding had been transported to a fairyland.

The soft strains of the orchestra had filled the area for the last hour, but now the music had begun in earnest, a traditional march that propelled me and Sloane down the aisle to our designated spots opposite Tyler and Cole.

I’d barely had time to glance sideways at Cole when the music changed yet again, this time into the wedding march. Immediately, guests stood and turned, looking back to where Angie had appeared in her stunning, hand-beaded wedding gown with the eight-foot train.

She seemed to glide down the aisle on her father’s arm, and there was no sound except for the processional.

Even the insects in the gardens seemed to have hushed in deference to this woman who looked so radiant that she seemed lit from within.

I watched, blinking back tears as her father gave her away to Evan, who looked ridiculously happy. As the minister began to perform the ceremony, I stood next to Sloane, my bouquet tight in my hand, and looked out over the sea of faces. Some were friends, but most were strangers, and I was reminded that even though Angie had fast become a focal point of my life, we both had years behind us that the other knew nothing about. Weirdly, the thought comforted me. There was so much still to learn about my friends. About Cole. Hell, even about myself.

I glanced sideways to where Cole stood next to Tyler and Evan and found that he was looking at me, too. I was already weepy just from the fact that this was a wedding, but I saw so much tenderness in his face that I had to look away, afraid that the open emotion I saw in him would cause my tears to spill in earnest.

I concentrated instead on Evan—on the expression on his face that managed to encompass love and joy and passion and every other uplifting emotion.

I wanted that, too, I realized. I wanted to be in Angie’s shoes, walking down the aisle to the man I loved.

I wanted to see Cole looking at me that way.

Weddings. I stifled a sigh and forced my thoughts back to the bride. On keeping my smile in place. On trying to remember what Angie’s mom had asked me to do after the ceremony to help the staff set up for the reception.

I filled my head with so many thoughts that the actual wedding went by in a hazy, romantic blur that didn’t come into focus until I heard the familiar “you may kiss the bride” and saw Evan pull Angie greedily toward him.

After that, it was a flurry of music, another march down the aisle, then congratulations and pictures and hugging and kissing.

At one point Tyler grabbed a microphone and— after the squeal of feedback— he asked for everyone’s attention. He started off congratulating Angie and Evan, talking about how they were always meant to be together, and generally delighting the crowd.

“But enough about them,” he said. “I have an announcement to make, and it seems to me that a wedding is the perfect venue.” Beside him, Sloane was turning a little bit pink, which I found both baffling and amusing since she very rarely blushes.

“Earlier today, I asked Sloane to be my wife and she did me the honor of saying yes. Thank you,” he added in response to the burst of applause. “But I have to add that Evan is no longer the luckiest man here today. He has to share that title with me.” “Why not?” someone called from the crowd. “You guys share everything. For that matter, where’s Cole?” At which point all eyes turned to find me—not Cole—and I felt my cheeks turning even more red than Sloane’s.

Fortunately that’s when the staff called everyone back into the pavilion, which now overflowed with food and wine and wonderful music from a band playing softly in the far corner.

I hung back a bit, trying to find Cole, who’d gotten sucked away into the crowd when we’d all been herded outside. I couldn’t find him, so I re-entered the pavilion, hoping to see him there. I didn’t—not at first—but I did see Sloane. She was on the dance floor in Tyler’s arms, and her face was alight, as if candles warmed her from within. She caught my eye, and her smile grew even broader. She lifted her hand, pointed toward the ring, and mouthed diamond district, then laughed like a child as her newly minted fiancé twirled her into his arms and kissed her hard in the middle of the dance floor.

And then the other dancers parted, and there he was. Cole. He was watching them as well, his expression both wistful and happy. He must have felt the weight of my gaze, because after a moment, he turned and his eyes immediately found mine. For a moment, there was no one else in the world but us. Then he smiled, and the spell was broken, but that was okay. I could handle the rest of the world just fine, because I had this man.

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