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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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“The guy’s completely gone on you.” “You are such a liar,” I said. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine Cole being gone on anyone. He was too damn good at keeping everything in check. As far as I’d seen over the years, that temper was the only thing that managed to escape his walls—and even that burst out like a rocket and was quickly snuffed.

“I’ve seen his face when he looks at you,” she said.

“Or, more accurately, I’ve seen his face when he looks at you and you’re not looking back.” Her mouth quirked up.

“You know as well as I do that Cole doesn’t give anything away that he doesn’t have to.” “There’s one of the century’s biggest understatements.” “I’m serious,” she said.

“When Tyler looks at me the way I’ve seen Cole look at you, I know to expect a very long night, with very little sleep.” “Oh.” I drew in a breath, then licked suddenly dry lips.

“That’s something,” I added, unable to keep the smile out of my voice. “Thanks.” “Sure,” she said. “But, listen. Are you—” She cut herself off with a shrug.

“Never mind.” “Oh, no,” I said. “No way are you pulling that with me.

You’ve got something to say, and it’s about me or it’s about Cole. And I want to know.” “It’s just—are you sure about this? And why now?” “Yes,” I said, because despite my nervous moments and hesitations, I’d never been more sure about anything. I took her arm and steered her to a far corner, where there were no paintings displayed on the walls and therefore no guests to overhear us. “And as for now, I don’t think I have a choice anymore. I can’t get him out of my head,” I admitted.

“He’s getting into my dreams.

I’ve never had a guy get this far under my skin, and it’s driving me a little bit crazy.” “So this is an exorcism?” “Maybe. Hell, I don’t know. Why?” “Because we’re friends, Kat. All of us. Me and Tyler, Angie and Evan. And even you and Cole. I don’t want it to get weird, and I don’t want —” She shook her head.

“Sorry, that’s none of my business. Shouldn’t go there.” No way was I letting her get away with that. “Go where?” “I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” She dragged her fingers through her hair. “I just happen to know that Cole doesn’t date. I don’t want you disappointed. And—to be perfectly selfish—I don’t want to lose the dynamic between the six of us.” “I don’t, either,” I said truthfully. “But I need to do this.” I didn’t try to explain that if I didn’t, the dynamic between us would change anyway. I’d crossed a mental line, and no matter what, I couldn’t go back to being Friendly Kat, the girl with the secret crush on Cole. Because this wasn’t a crush. This was a need. This was a hunger. I’d opened Pandora’s box, and even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t shove everything back inside.

“What do you mean he doesn’t date?” I pressed.

“That’s what Tyler told me. He fucks,” she said with a quirk of her brow. “But he doesn’t date.” “That’s part of what makes him perfect,” I admitted, because although I had no way of knowing for sure, I’d watched him long enough and intently enough to guess that Cole was at least as fucked up as I was. “I just want to scratch this itch. And if you’re right, then Cole has the same itch, and this should work out just fine.” “So you’re just looking for a fuck buddy?” She narrowed her eyes, obviously dubious.

“Yeah,” I said, though I hadn’t really put it in those terms before. “Yeah, I guess I am.” “Kat...” She trailed off, and there was no way to miss the censure in her voice.

“What?” “That’s a load of total bullshit.” “No,” I said firmly, “it’s not.” And it wasn’t. I’d admit —at least to myself—that the attraction I felt for Cole pulsed hard and drove deep.

But that didn’t mean I wanted to date the man—or, more specifically, it didn’t mean that I would date him, no matter how much I might want it.

Not that I could explain all of that to Sloane. We might have become friends since she’d rolled into town late last summer, but no way was I opening my closet so she could see all of my skeletons.

I didn’t need a degree in psychology to know I was fucked up, and I didn’t need a degree in human sexuality to know that I wanted Cole’s hands on me. The second one I could do something about.

The first one I just had to live with.

“Trust me, Sloane,” I said, hoping that I wasn’t about to screw up royally. “I know what I’m doing.” For a second she didn’t answer, then she nodded.

“It’s your life. Go get him.” I laughed, then signaled to a passing waiter. He paused in front of me, and I grabbed a glass of chardonnay.

I held up my finger as I downed it, silently signaling the waiter to stay. Then I exchanged my empty glass for a full one. “Liquid courage,” I said, more to Sloane than the waiter, though his lips twitched as well.

He tilted his head in both acknowledgment and farewell, then slid off into the crowd. I watched him go, knowing that my turn was next. Because Cole was somewhere in that throng, too.

I caught Sloane’s eye, and took strength from her encouraging grin. “Here goes nothing,” I said, then moved away from her and back toward the throng, determined to see this through.

It took a moment, but I finally found Cole surrounded by a group of well-heeled guests, all of whom were gazing with rapturous expressions at a canvas that seemed to be in motion, it was so full of color and life. I couldn’t hear Cole, but I saw the animation in his face, the way he got when he spoke of art.

He used his hands, his body, and with every word and motion he captured the crowd. Hell, he captured me, too, and I moved closer and closer, until finally I could hear his words and I just stood there, letting his smooth voice roll over me and give me courage.

After a moment, he wrapped up his spiel and left the guests to contemplate the painting on their own. When he did, he turned and saw me, and I felt the impact of that connection all the way to my toes.

There’d been heat between us earlier tonight— of that I no longer had any doubt. But Cole had been in control then. This time, I’d caught him unaware, and I could plainly see the pulsing hunger that raged through him as he took in the sight of me.

Go. Now.

I drew in a breath for courage. Yeah, it was time to do this thing.

And so I took one step, and then another and another.

Each taking me toward Cole August. Each fueling that fire inside me that raged for him —a fire that had the power to either raise me up or reduce me to ashes.

I could only hope that tonight I would capture the man, and not destroy myself in the trying.

three It’s not sex that messes you up. It’s desire.

Once sex enters the equation, everyone has something to bargain with.

It’s like a contract, and there’s consideration on each side. Maybe the sex isn’t great, or maybe it’s mindblowing, or maybe the participants are so wrapped up in their own neuroses that it overshadows all the rest.

But even then, the basic parameters are there and everyone knows what’s expected of them.

That’s not the case with desire.

With desire it’s all onesided. You have nothing to go on except perception. A smile. A nod. A handshake that lingers too long. The stroke of a finger over hair.

But all those things can be hidden, and all those things can be faked.

When you grow up in the grift, you know how to fake a lot of things, and you know how to read people.

You think you do, anyway.

I thought I knew how to read Cole. I thought I’d seen the subtle signals that validated my own desire. The little hints and movements, the casual glances and offhand touches.

I thought I’d seen them— but I couldn’t be certain. And if I wanted an answer I had to put myself on the line.

That is why desire is a bitch.

That bitch currently had her iron hand on my shoulder and was steering me through the crowd toward the object of my desire. He’d been pulled aside by an elegant seventy-something woman who appeared to be interrogating him and the artist about the subtle distinctions between two of the pieces on display.

I had three things going for me, and I clung tight to them like a child to a security blanket. First, my upbringing made me a chameleon, both changeable and adaptable. It also gave me a thick skin and the ability to fake confidence.

Some kids thank their parents for forcing them to endure Little League in order to build character. I thanked my dad for teaching me how to pull off long and short cons.

Second, I’d seen desire in Cole’s eyes at least twice during the gala. Maybe I was projecting, but I didn’t think so. And if he wanted me, too, then that made my goal that much more attainable.

Finally, I’d slammed back two glasses of wine within the space of five minutes, and I am a lightweight where alcohol is concerned. That meant that I was floating on a cloud of liquid courage, just like I’d told the waiter. And as far as I was concerned, that was a damn fine thing.

“You can analyze,” Cole was saying as I approached, “or you can feel.” The two paintings he was discussing were huge, the canvases each eight feet tall and four feet wide. They stood side by side, the vibrant colors seeming to jump from the canvases. The artist, a South Sider who looked to be on the shy side of twenty and went by the name of Tiki, nodded vigorously from his post beside Cole.

“That’s what I been sayin’.” He thumped his chest with the heel of his hand.

“You gotta go with what you feel here. You can pick it apart and hold up color swaths and call in your highprice decorators, but that ain’t gonna tell you what’s gonna feel right when you walk into the room and see that canvas on your wall.” The woman sniffed. “That may be so, young man, but my husband just paid six figures to our designer to redo the den, and I assure you that if what I purchase clashes with the decor, it won’t be your art I’m feeling.” Tiki laughed. “You got me there, Amelia.” I expected her to chastise him for his impertinence, but she only joined his laughter.

“What do you think, Kat?” Cole asked.

I looked up at him, surprised that he was pulling me into the discussion. More than that, I had the distinct feeling that he’d been watching me while I’d been watching Tiki and Amelia.

“I think that your sixfigure decorating job isn’t worth a nickel if you don’t make the room yours.” I stepped closer to the canvases, sliding into operator mode. This I knew how to do. “If you had a completely empty room to work with, which would you choose?” I looked from one to the other as Amelia considered.

“It’s a hard choice, I know,” I said. “They’re similar, and yet at the same time each stands alone. They’re evocative,” I added. “The bursts of color. The subtlety of the muted areas.” I glanced at her, saw that she was nodding slightly, and started to reel her in.

“I don’t know about you,” I said—because we were just talking girl to girl now—“but I look at these, and they lift me up.” I did a quick inspection of her appearance.

The classic lines of her dress.

Her carefully styled hair. She was considering buying modern art, yes, but this was an elegant woman with roots that probably sank for generations.

That analysis told me where to go next. “It makes me feel like...” I drifted off, as if considering. “It’s like being at the symphony,” I finally said. “When the music seems to lift you up and carry you away.” “Yes,” she murmured, nodding. “Why, yes.” “What I find particularly compelling is the way these two pieces blend together.

You see? The colors complement each other. The red here draws out the purple on this one.” I indicated each painting in turn. “They work in tandem—honestly, I’d be afraid that separating them would be like removing all the violins from a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.” I glanced at Cole and saw that his eyes were narrowed just slightly. But whether he was impressed with my efforts or concerned that I was about to screw up a sale, I didn’t know.

Tiki was easier to read.

His wide grin suggested that he knew exactly where I was heading.

I pushed them both out of my mind. Right then, I didn’t need performance anxiety adding to my already existing soup of emotional turmoil.

“How would you choose?” Amelia asked.

“Honestly?” I leaned toward her conspiratorially.

“I’d cheat.” Her eyes widened, as if I’d just said the most scandalous thing imaginable.

“If I had an empty room to fill, I wouldn’t leave with just one. I’d insist on acquiring both.” She turned her attention from me back to the paintings. I could see the spark of interest, and then I saw the way her brow furrowed to form a deep V above her nose. “But all this is hypothetical. I don’t have carte blanche.” “Actually,” I said, grinning broadly, “you do.

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