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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 36 ] --

Sloane eased the car by Cole’s childhood home—one room on the second floor of a filthy brick building that looked ready to collapse at any moment. There was an old woman on the stoop, and when we asked, she told us that nobody was inside. I considered going in to see for myself, but when Sloane pointed out that the motorcycle Cole had bought wasn’t parked anywhere in sight, I agreed that it was better to just get out of there.

“Just go to my place,” I said, my whole body feeling heavy and battered. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was worried about Cole or simply overwhelmed by the poverty and misery of the neighborhood he grew up in.

All I knew was that I wanted nothing more than to curl up and cry.

Well, almost nothing more.

What I wanted more than anything was Cole.

“We’re not that far from his house,” Sloane said, as she maneuvered her car toward Cole’s Hyde Park address. “Maybe he was heading home all along and just decided to take a detour.

Let’s check there first, then if you still want, I’ll take you home.” I nodded, but I wasn’t hopeful, and when we got to the house, we found it empty.

“Please,” I said, after I tried his phone once more to no success. “Just take me home.” She nodded, and we headed to my little house in silence. Once there, I curled up on my sofa.

Sloane made me hot chocolate, then crouched down in front of me. “Want me to stay?” she ask.

“Yes. No.” I sat up. “No,” I said firmly. “Go back to Tyler. Maybe he’s got some ideas. Call me if you find him. I’m—” I shrugged, feeling useless. “I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But I’d like to be alone.” She pressed one hand on the couch for balance, then put her other on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eye. “Whatever it is, he’ll be okay.” I nodded, even though I wasn’t nearly as sure. We’d come so far, Cole and I. And yet when something terrible had happened, he hadn’t come to me. He’d exploded— lost it completely if the newspaper dispenser was any indication—but I’d been completely off his radar.

I knew Sloane was right— somehow, someway, Cole would be okay. He’d work through it. He’d fix whatever problem had arisen. He’d kick his own ass and calm himself down. He would be fine. He would be okay.

And, yes, I was glad of that.

But the bottom line was that when the shit had hit the fan, he’d run from me instead of to me. And that one simple fact felt like a fist around my heart.

Sloane hovered a little bit longer, then finally left on a wave of promises to get Tyler on it and to call the moment they heard anything. As soon as I heard her car pull out of the driveway, I stood up. I wasn’t sure what I intended to do, but I knew I needed to move.

What I wanted was to go toe-to-toe with Cole. To tell him he was an idiot. To poke him in the chest and ask him what the hell he was thinking.

Didn’t he know he could tell me anything? That he didn’t have to hide his temper from me? That if he had to explode he could let it all go in front of me?

Didn’t he know that I loved him? Didn’t he understand what that meant?

Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and again dialed his number. Once again, I got his voicemail. “Dammit, Cole,” I said. “Where are you? Call me. You’re scaring me, you know that, right? Not because I’m afraid you’re hurt, but because I’m afraid—” My breath hitched, and I blinked furiously, forcing back the tears. “I’m just afraid,” I finished lamely. And then, because I didn’t want to just blather on, I ended the call.

As soon as it disconnected, I called my father on the burner. I wasn’t even conscious of making the decision to call, but soon the phone was ringing and I knew that other than seeing Cole, the only thing I wanted right then in the world was to hear my dad telling me that it was all going to be okay.

“Kitty Cat,” he said softly.

“Daddy.” It was the only word I could manage though the tears that filled my throat.

“Is this a good-news call?

I thought you weren’t going to call your old man until this whole mess blew over.” “I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up.” For a moment, there was silence, then his voice came back on the line, soft and gentle. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” That did it. The tears flowed freely. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing to do with you, I mean. It’s just—it’s just—” I sucked in air. “I guess I just want to see you.

But I can’t. Not yet. But I had to at least hear your voice, you know?” “You’re scaring me, kiddo. You going to tell your old man what’s wrong? You in trouble?” “No,” I said quickly. “No, it’s just Cole.” “You have a fight?” he asked, his voice full of protective paternalism.

“No,” I said. “But when I find him I think we will.” I told him briefly what had happened. How something had upset Cole, and how he’d gone off wild into the night to fight his demons.





“Well, they’re his demons, aren’t they?” Daddy asked.

“I—well, yes. But—” “Give him a chance, sweetheart.” “A chance?” He sighed. “Love doesn’t change who a person is, kiddo. Just the opposite. Love lets you strip away all the armor you’ve put on to protect you from the riffraff of the world. You love Cole?” “Yes.” “So if he needs time alone, does that make you love him less?” “No, of course not, but—” I felt my fear and temper deflate just a little. “I want to help him,” I finished lamely.

“I want him to need me.” “I’m sure he does. But does that mean he has to follow the script in your head? Give him space. Talk to him. Don’t manufacture a problem until there is a problem. I’ve seen the way that boy looks at you,” my dad added. “And trust me when I say that he loves you.” I was smiling when I ended the call, which was a miracle in and of itself since I was no closer to finding Cole.

But everything my dad said had soothed me, and it saddened me a bit that Cole had gone his entire life without a parent watching his back.

Except he hadn’t.

I cocked my head, turning the thought over as I examined it. Maybe he hadn’t had a mother and father.

Maybe he hadn’t lived the stereotypical life with two parents, a picket fence, and a dog. But he’d had brothers, hadn’t he? Tyler and Evan.

And he’d had a father.

He’d had Jahn.

I’d wanted to go see my dad, but I couldn’t, and so I’d done the next best thing—I’d called him.

Cole couldn’t visit or talk to Jahn—but if he wanted to feel close to his friend and mentor, he could go to where he used to live.

He could go to Jahn’s old condo.

Nobody answered when I buzzed the intercom, but I told myself it didn’t matter.

He was in there, because he had to be in there. Because if he wasn’t, then I was out of ideas, and that simply wasn’t acceptable.

Angie had given me a key and the security code months ago so that I could come in and use the condo’s fitness center and pool whenever I wanted. I’d never before entered the actual condo without her advance permission, though.

Tonight, I did.

“Hello?” I called softly as I stepped into the foyer.

“Cole?” There was no answer, and I repeated the call as I moved through the living room and then into the kitchen and bedrooms.

Nobody.

I returned to the living room and stood there frowning. The room looked pristine. Certainly no one had gone and smashed through this area in the mindless throes of a tantrum. Did that mean he hadn’t been here? Or did it just mean that he was calming down?

Howard Jahn used to tell anyone who would listen that one of the reasons that he bought this condo as opposed to any other was because the living room was dominated by a magnificent spiral staircase that led to an even more magnificent rooftop patio. Now I turned my attention to that staircase and slowly let my gaze drift upward.

Please, I thought, then walked in that direction.

I climbed slowly, both wanting to find him and wanting to postpone the disappointment if it turned out that he wasn’t up there.

He wasn’t.

There were no lights on the patio when I stepped through the sliding glass door onto the smooth slate surface.

I looked around, peering through the inky night first toward the railing and glass barrier that overlooked the lake, and then toward the fully stocked kitchen and sitting area.

No Cole.

I drew in a breath, letting my shoulders rise and fall as this unwelcome reality settled over me. I started to turn to go back inside when something on a small metal bench in front of the glass barrier caught my eye. A manila envelope. And on top of it, the small green stone that I’d often seen Cole rub when he was worried or frustrated or upset.

I’d changed into jeans before I’d come to the condo, and now I slipped the stone into my pocket. The envelope was a little trickier to deal with. I wanted to open it. And yet I didn’t.

I had no idea what was inside that envelope, but I was certain that it had the power to destroy.

Still, I couldn’t fight what I couldn’t understand. And so I sucked in a breath, pulled open the already loose flap, and let the contents fall into my lap.

Oh god oh god oh god.

Photographs. Dozens of them.

The kind of photos you’d find in magazines that only existed so that men could jack off. And each and every one of them was of me.

Me, spread-eagled on the St. Andrew’s cross.

Me, bent over, legs wide, and Cole’s cock thrusting hard inside me. Not that he was in the picture—no, only I was identifiable.

Me, bound tight with hemp, a crotch knot at my clit.

I recognized each location, too. How could I not? My house. Our playroom. The photographer had found gaps in the blinds.

Had trespassed into my backyard and watched as Cole had taken me—as I’d given myself to him in so many different ways.

Looking at them, my stomach churned and bile rose in my throat. Not because of what they portrayed, but how they portrayed it. Twisting my most personal moments into something cold and harsh and ugly.

Intimacy butchered to become porn.

Who? Right then, I swear I could have killed the bastard who had breached our privacy so violently. But who the hell had done it? And for god’s sake, what did they intend to do with these horrible pictures?

I was just about to call Sloane to get her thoughts when my phone rang. I practically turned a backflip to tug it out of my pocket, then deflated when I saw that the caller was Tyler, not Cole.

“Anything?” I demanded.

“He’s at BAS,” Tyler said, referring to Black, August, Sharp Security. “Just unkeyed the door with his code. I’m going.” “No,” I said. “I am. I’m at Evan’s condo. I can be there in less than ten minutes.” “Do you know what’s going on?” Tyler asked.

“What’s he doing at the office? Why the hell did he schedule the jet for tonight?” The jet.

I thought of the weapons room at BAS. And then I thought of the fact that a private plane didn’t have to deal with airport security.

“Where is he going?” I asked, feeling a little sick to my stomach as the pieces started coming together.

“Flight plan logged for Atlantic City,” Tyler said, and I cursed.

“I know what he’s doing,” I said. “He’s going to kill Ilya Muratti.” twenty-five I found him in the weapons vault tossing boxes of ammo into a duffel that already held two pistols and a revolver.

“Are you planning to take out his entire staff?” I asked softly. “Or just the man himself?” He didn’t turn, but I saw his shoulders stiffen.

“Dammit, Cole, you can’t do this.” “The hell I can’t.” He ground the words out, raw and rough and so filled with pain they seemed to drip like blood. “It’s the only goddamn thing I can do.” “No.” I took a step toward him, then another. When I was standing right behind him, I pressed my hand gently to his back.

I’d expected him to flinch away from my touch, and when he didn’t, I closed my eyes, the motion like the physical manifestation of a sigh of relief. Maybe I haven’t lost him yet.

“Please,” I said. “Turn around and look at me.” At first I thought he would ignore me, but then he turned slowly, his eyes finding mine.

They were cold and determined, dangerous and wild.

I shook my head. “You can’t.” “You saw the photos?” His words were clipped, harsh. They were full of anger, but it seemed directed more at himself than at Muratti. “Saw the fucking hell I shoved you into?” “You? You think this is somehow your fault?

Dammit, Cole, this isn’t your fault any more than what happened to Bree was on your shoulders. It’s nobody’s fault except Muratti’s and the prick photographer who trespassed on my property.

“And,” I added, because I was on a roll, “if you think I did anything with you that I didn’t consent to one hundred and twenty percent—that I didn’t enjoy at least twice that much—then you are a fucking idiot.” Some of the tension left his body then, and he sagged back to lean against the table on which the duffel bag lay.

“Why are you here?” he asked.



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