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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 37 ] --

“Don’t go to Atlantic City,” I said, then tossed the envelope onto the table before handing him the stone.

He took it, and as he did our fingers brushed. As always, I felt that shock of connection.

More important, I saw in his eyes that he felt it, too.

“Don’t kill him, Cole. Not even for me.” He ran his hands over his head, then drew in a long breath. He had changed out of the tux he’d worn to the wedding and now wore jeans and a simple gray T-shirt that accentuated the muscles in his arms and chest. Even without a gun, he was deadly.

With one, he was unstoppable.

I intended to stop him anyway.

“Talk to me, dammit,” I said. I wanted to shake him.

To slap him. I wanted to kick some sense into him. But the moment was charged—hell, he was charged—and every ounce of reason in me told me that I needed to talk him down. That raging against a man who could so easily give in to rage would be like pouring gasoline on a flame.

After a moment, he held out the small green stone, his thumb rubbing it in slow, even strokes. “Jahn gave me this,” he said, without preamble and without looking at me. “Did I ever tell you that?” “No.” “He left each of us a letter and a gift. More of a token, really. Something personal.

Something that held some meaning for him.” “Why was the stone important to him?” I asked.

Now Cole turned his head and looked at me directly.

“He bought it on his honeymoon,” Cole said. “His first honeymoon,” he added wryly. “His wife said he fretted too much. That he needed something to absorb the stress.” “But that’s not the whole story.” I’d known Howard Jahn. The man had about a million layers. And if he was giving a worry stone as a legacy, there had to be a deeper purpose.

“He knew me better than anyone,” Cole said. “Anyone except you,” he added, and something that had been cold and shriveled inside me began to bloom and grow.

“He knew about my temper.

About the crack my mother smoked. About the way I could snap. He knew about the gangs, and he knew what I’d done. More, he knew what I was capable of doing. And he believed that I could hold it all in. That I could control my temper rather than have my temper control me.” “Smart man, Howard Jahn,” I said. “I knew there was a reason I always liked him.” I saw the flicker of amusement in his eyes. Just a hint of an instant, but it gave me another thread of hope to grasp.

“He told me that one day I would find a woman who fit me. Who soothed me. Who’d help me cling to control. I’d find her one day, Jahn said,” Cole continued. “But he gave me the worry stone to use until then.” He’d turned away as he spoke, looking vaguely at the wall of weapons—pistols and shotguns, Tasers, and who knows what else. But even though he wasn’t touching me or looking at me, I knew that he was talking about me —that I was the woman Jahn had promised. And that simple knowledge filled me with a bittersweet joy.

That, however, wasn’t the end.

“Go on,” I whispered.

“Tell me the rest.” He turned to me, and his face was no longer closed off.

I saw love. I saw adoration.

And—god help me—I saw pain.

“You do that for me, Kat.

I love you—god, how I love you. But it’s more than that.

You’ve done more than slip into my life. Hell, you’ve clicked into place. You fit me perfectly.” I clutched his hand, tears spilling out of my eyes because there was no way that I could hold so much emotion inside.

“You make me feel whole,” he said, his voice cracking with an emotion I couldn’t identify. “And all I’ve done is fuck it up for you.” Something dark and cold wrapped around me, then squeezed tight, making me work for each breath. “No,” I whispered. I knew he was thinking of those awful photos. “God no. You didn’t fuck anything up. And even if you had, killing Ilya Muratti isn’t going to change a thing.” “Yeah,” he said. “It will.” “Bullshit. The only thing that will change is that your juvie record will be unsealed.” “Goddammit, Kat. You don’t have a clue.” “Because you’re not telling me.” I had to hold myself back to keep from shouting, I was so damned frustrated. “What do you know that I don’t? How the hell did Muratti even get those pictures?” “Because I fucked up.

Because my brilliant plan to keep you and your father safe took a fucking nosedive.” I shook my head, not understanding.

“Muratti cut through the layers of paper and corporations,” Cole said. He pressed a finger to his temple and rubbed, as if fighting a massive headache. “I was right that he wouldn’t push back against Stark—I was even right that when he found out about me it would deflect attention from your dad. But he pushed harder. Went further. And somehow in checking on me he found out about you. And along the way, the son of a bitch realized that you’re Maury Rhodes’s daughter.” The words knocked me back like a blow to the chest.

“No,” I said lamely. “How?” “On paper, it looks like you came out of nowhere, Kat. That’s hard to trace, sure. But it’s also suspicious.

And a man like Muratti has both curiosity and resources.

He can find what needs to be found.” I shook my head, reaching out for the table to steady myself.

“He had someone follow you. Follow us. And don’t you know he had a goddamn party when his gopher reported back on the kinds of pictures he’d managed to snag? St. Andrew’s cross.

Spreader bars. Flogger.

Blindfolds. What do you think, Kat?” he asked, his voice harsh with anger and frustration. “You think your dad wants to see a picture of his little girl with a butt plug?” I winced and looked away.

“Shit. Shit, I’m sorry.” The harshness was gone from his voice, replaced by a soft gentleness that made me want to cry. “But you have to understand.” He drew in a breath. “It’s my fault. I know that. I should have seen it coming. I should have done a better job keeping you safe.” “No,” I whispered. “It’s not your fault.” “Hell, yes,” he said, then met my eyes. “I fucked up.

But that’s a mistake I intend to remedy right now.” “Cole, you can’t.” “The hell I can’t.

Muratti’s going to release those pictures, Kat. If I don’t tell him where your dad is, he’s going to spread them far and wide.” “Oh.” It was the only word I could manage. I swallowed. Sucked in air.

“We’re not telling him where my dad is. I’m not painting a target on my father’s back.” “Well, you know, Muratti’s not entirely unreasonable.” A horrible irony laced his voice. “He said if I release them myself —if I let the whole world see those pictures of you—he’ll let your dad walk. No retribution, no nothing.” I met his eyes, then hugged myself. Those pictures, out there in the world. My dad would see them. My friends would see them. My private moments —our private moments— tossed out for the gossip hounds.

And there was no telling myself they’d go away. They wouldn’t.

I might not be as much in the public eye as Nikki Fairchild, but I’d go through the same hell. At least her portrait had been art. Taken out of context, these were vile. They were the kind of pictures that would make the rounds on social media. That would get tossed up on YouTube.

This was the kind of crap that lived forever, and with a man like Cole August attached to the gossip, it would live even longer.

These photos would follow me the rest of my life.

And Cole had seen that from the beginning. He’d seen that the only way to protect my privacy was to throw himself back in the muck.

“Cole,” I said, my heart breaking as I slid my arms around him. He stood tense at first, unresponsive. And then he tilted his head so that his forehead pressed against mine and his arms tightened around my waist.

“You weren’t supposed to know any of this. I wanted to keep you out of it. To keep you shielded from it. But I guess I managed to fuck that up, too.” “Cole, stop,” I said gently.

“I didn’t think you’d end up at Jahn’s,” he continued, and I wasn’t even sure he’d heard me. “I left the envelope there with the stone as a message to Tyler and Evan.

So they would understand what happened if I didn’t return. Insurance, you know.

Just in case.” He leaned back so he could look at me. “But I didn’t think it would be a problem. I planned to go there, kill the son of a bitch and any of his flunkies who got in my way, then come back, destroy the folder, and go home to you.” “Christ, Cole.” I could barely get a word out past the jumble of thoughts in my head. “How the hell could you even be sure that would end it? He might have left another set with someone for insurance against that very thing.” “Not his style,” Cole said, “so I figured it was a calculated risk. If I was right, you’d be safe. And you’d never even need to know any of this happened.” “And if you were wrong?” “Then at least the bastard who did that to you would be rotting in the morgue.” I raked my fingers through my hair. “You’d keep all of that from me? Lie to me?” “You have no idea how far I’d go to protect you.” He stroked my cheek, his eyes taking me in, as if studying every line, every pore, every atom. “I want his blood, Kat.

And I will have it.” I shook my head, overwhelmed by the emotions swirling inside of me. “You think you have no control, but don’t you see yourself? You are nothing but control right now. You’re practically vibrating your grip is so tight.” I held tight to his hand.

“Take it further,” I said.

“Take it further by stepping back.” “Stepping back?” “You can’t do this, don’t you get that? Kill him and you’re back where you were before. That’s not who you are.” “I’ll be whatever I have to be to keep you safe.” I could feel the intensity rising in him. A primal, earthy quality, as if he was gearing up for a fight. “I promise you. I can do what’s necessary with no problem whatsoever.” I ran my fingers through my hair again, searching for an answer. The truth was, I didn’t care if he killed Muratti. From what I knew of the son of a bitch, he deserved to die. But the consequences to Cole scared me to death. “What about giving the land back?” “Ran that option by the old man. He’s way past wanting the land. All he wants now is his pound of flesh.” “What about the son?” I asked. “Maybe he can talk to his father and—” “No,” Cole said firmly. “I did talk to him, and you’re right about Michael. He’s a hell of a lot more reasonable.

But it’s Daddy’s show and it’s going to stay Daddy’s show until the old man kicks the bucket.” “You can’t force that along.” “Dammit, Kat, I can. I can and I will. Don’t you get it?

Don’t you fucking get it? I love you, goddammit,” he said, and the passion in his voice nearly knocked me over.

“I love you, and I will take care of you. I will protect you. I will protect your father.

I will goddamn make sure that nothing happens to you —that nothing happens to your father—and that these goddamn photos do not ever —ever—see the light of day.” He’d pushed away from the table as he spoke and had moved toward me, forcing me backward to the far wall.

Now he had me trapped there, a rack of shotguns to my left.

I was caged in his arms, breathing hard, trying to find the magic words to make him stop and back up. To make him think and figure something else out. Because there had to be a way out.

Because I couldn’t live like this. Couldn’t live in the nightmare that was crashing down all around me.

“You’re all that matters, Kat. Ilya Muratti sure as hell doesn’t. He’s nothing to us.” He pulled me close and kissed me hard. “Say it, Catalina. Tell me he’s nothing.” “He’s nothing,” I said, then pulled him roughly back to me. I needed his touch, his hands. I needed it rough and hard and wild.

I had no idea how we would get through this. How we could find an out that wouldn’t destroy him or me, but I knew that we had to. I knew, because we had to be together. Because I had to be the woman in Cole’s arms— and he had to be the man in mine.

“Christ, Kat,” he said, ripping my T-shirt up over my head. “Do you have any idea how much you mean to me? Do you have any idea the extent I would go to keep you safe?” “I do,” I said, fumbling to get out of my jeans, kicking them off, tugging at his. We were wild, frenzied. I needed everything from him then. I needed his protection, his touch, his love.

Dammit, we fit. Not just in sex, but in life. In the way we approached the world. In the day to day.

Most of all, in love.

“Kat,” he murmured, then lowered his head to my breast. I hadn’t bothered with a bra, and his mouth closed over me, sucking, teasing, biting. Sending ribbons of sensation coursing through me, shooting from my breast to my clit so that I was squirming under his touch, so aroused right then that I boldly slid my own hand down and stroked my own wet sex.

“God, yes,” he said, closing his hand over mine.

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