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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 5 ] --

What’s the color scheme of your room?” “Earth tones highlighted with peach.” “These colors,” I said, indicating a portion of the canvas on the left. I looked to Tiki for confirmation and help. He gave the confirmation, but he didn’t jump in as I’d hoped.

Cole, however, picked up the thread. “She’s right, you know,” he said to Amelia.

“Alone, the other painting might not work with that scheme. But see here?” He gestured between the two paintings, his movements highlighting the colors and patterns. “These browns and greens are a perfect complement to the peach and pinks over here.” “Yeah, man, they’re right,” Tiki said. “These canvases, they’re like a team.

Like bread and butter, you know what I’m sayin’?” I watched Amelia, and saw the slow spread of a smile. It was a smile I recognized from my days and nights in Florida, pushing paintings with my dad. It was a smile that said a woman with too much money had just figured out a way to justify her spending.

In other words, my work there was done.

I pressed my palm gently against her arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to run on like that. At any rate, I’ll let you and Tiki talk. I really should go mingle.” “Well, I don’t think we need any further debate,” I heard her say as I melted into the crowd. “We just need that nice young girl with the credit card machine.” “That was quite the performance,” Cole said a few moments later. He took my arm and steered me to one side. I went willingly, my entire body tingling simply from the firm grip of his fingers against my bare elbow.

He walked slightly behind me, so I couldn’t see his face.

“Good performance?” I asked. “Or bad performance?” “As far as I’m concerned, you get a standing ovation.” “Really?” I asked, ridiculously pleased that I’d impressed him.

He let go, then moved to face me. I missed his touch, but the trade-off was worth it.

I’m not the kind of girl who swoons over hunky firemen calendars and I’ve only seen Magic Mike once. But as far as eye candy went, Cole was a walking, talking Milky Way bar, and at least as tempting.

“Really,” he confirmed.

An easy smile bloomed on his face, and he shook his head slowly, with obvious pleasure. “I didn’t realize that working as a barista required such honed salesmanship.” “I’m a woman of many talents,” I said, then fluttered my lashes.

“Damn right you are.” He drew in a breath as he looked at me, and try as I might, I had no clue what he was thinking.

“That was quite the commission you just brought in,” he finally said. “I have a feeling you’ll be getting Christmas cards from Tiki for the rest of your life.” “I look forward to it. What about you?” I asked boldly, and blamed it on the wine. I met his eyes, and fervently hoped that mine really were a window to the soul, because right then I wanted him to see straight inside me. “What will I get from you?” “That depends on what you want.” “Want,” I repeated. Where Cole was concerned, what didn’t I want?

“I told you earlier that you owed me,” he said. “Do you want to call us even?” “Do you?” He was silent for a moment, and then one moment longer. “No,” he finally said.

I lifted my chin. “Good.” His expression remained perfectly stoic, but he lifted his hand toward my face, then dropped it, as if he were a child who’d caught himself about to do something naughty.

“It’s okay,” I said, my voice almost a whisper. “I won’t break.” “Don’t be so sure, blondie. I’ve been known to destroy even the most resilient things.” “I’m not a thing. And you won’t destroy me.” I hesitated only a second, then took one step closer. The difference was only inches, but the air seemed suddenly thicker, as if my lungs had to work harder to draw in oxygen. “It’s okay,” I said again.

All around us, the party continued, but I’m not sure either one of us was aware.

Instead, it felt as if we’d stepped into a vortex, and at least in our little corner of space and time nothing else mattered or even existed.

I held my breath, wanting his touch so badly I could taste it. And when he finally brushed the side of his thumb over my cheekbone, it was all I could do not to moan aloud.

All too quickly he took his hand away, leaving me bereft.

All too quickly he stepped back, forcing the world around us to come back to life.

“I just had to see if I was right,” he said.

“About?” “Your skin. It’s like touching a promise.” “Is it?” I murmured.

“Tender,” he said. “And a bit mysterious. With layer upon layer just waiting to be discovered.” My breath stuttered in my chest. “I didn’t know you thought that,” I said. “I didn’t know you thought about me at all.” He was silent for so long I began to fear he wasn’t going to answer. When he spoke, his words cut through me, sharp and sweet. “I think about you more than I should.” It was suddenly very warm in the gallery. Little beads of sweat gathered at the hairline on the back of my neck. I needed air, because it seemed as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.





Somehow, miraculously, I formed words. “What are you thinking now?” I saw the answer I craved in the lines of his face and the stiff control of his body. I felt it in the way the air between us crackled and sparked. I even smelled it, that warm and musky scent of desire.

The reality of his answer surrounded and enticed me, and yet when he spoke, his words denied me. Denied us both.

“I’m thinking no,” he said, destroying me with nothing more than those three simple words. “And I’m thinking that I need to get back to my guests.” four I watched him go, numb from the knowledge that despite being so close I had failed so spectacularly.

I couldn’t even take any solace from the fact that when he denied me, he was denying himself, too. I wanted his touch, not just the knowledge that he wanted me.

Then take it.

The thought was so simple, so accurate and so compelling, that I actually took a step toward him. I’d seen the heat. Hell, I’d practically smelled the sulfur.

If I pushed the issue, I knew damn well that I could force an explosion.

Determined, I aimed myself toward him. One step, then another. And then—with the crowd swirling around me and the voices meshing together like a discordant soundtrack—I simply stopped.

Did I want this?

I did, yes. Oh, god, I did. I wanted to feel Cole’s hands on my bare skin, his naked body hot against mine.

And yet...

And yet I couldn’t quite make myself go further. I could force an explosion, yes, but what then? If we burned together hot and hard, what would happen next?

Would we rise from the ashes like a phoenix?

Or would that fire simply destroy everything that already existed between us?

I’d told Sloane that I’d passed the point of no return —that I had to move forward even if that meant risking our friendship—and I’d meant the words when I’d said them.

But now doubt and fear had crept into the equation.

I cared about this man, and in so many ways. Did I really crave him so much that I was willing to risk destroying everything else?

“Are you okay?” I blinked, drawn from my thoughts by the woman’s voice. “Yeah,” I said. She was a tall brunette, and somewhat familiar. “Just distracted—and a little lightheaded. Too much wine.” “Cole and Tyler know how to throw a party. I’m Michelle. I think I’ve seen you once or twice at Destiny.” “Oh, right.” I took the hand she offered and shook it.

Destiny was the well-heeled gentleman’s club the knights owned. I didn’t go there often, but I’d been a couple of times with Angie for drinks while we’d waited for Evan, and Sloane had actually worked there for a while.

She’d even confessed to me that she still performed occasionally. “Tyler likes it,” she’d said with the kind of smile that suggested that she liked it, too. And liked even more what happened after the dancing.

I tried to place Michelle, but couldn’t manage it. With her body, she could have easily been a dancer, but I didn’t think so. I had a vague memory of her at the bar.

And, as the memory grew stronger, I started to see Cole there beside her.

“You’re Cole’s friend, right?” Her eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. “Yeah,” she said, with an amused lilt to her voice. “We’re very good friends.” “Well,” I said tightly, as green strands of jealousy started twisting in my gut, “it’s really great to see you here.” She said a few more hollow words about the gala and I responded with equally hollow chitchat. Then she continued on her way. I waited a moment, then decided that those knots of jealousy confirmed that I needed to just get the hell out of there. I needed to think and to regroup.

And I needed to put distance between me and Cole.

I planned to make the circle, say my goodbyes, then go home and drown my lust and indecision in a bottle of Shiraz and a really sappy movie. With any luck, Flynn would still be at work, and I could have the entire bottle to myself.

I started to meander toward the door, but didn’t make it very far. Instead, I ended up pausing just a few steps from my starting point, jerked to a stop by the sight of Michelle and Cole, her hand on his shoulder and her mouth near his ear.

True, she could have been telling him something mundane—I thought you should know your car has a flat—but my imagination was drifting more in the direction of why don’t we slip in the back and I’ll suck your cock.

Shit.

Yes, I was an absolute, indisputable wreck—and it was entirely Cole August’s fault.

I steeled myself to continue toward the exit, and kept the thought of a glass of wine and a movie dangling in front of me like a carrot. But then I saw Cole’s hand on the small of Michelle’s back, and his face as hard as stone. And then, when the two of them stopped in front of the bloated, baby-faced man Cole had been talking with earlier, my curiosity got the better of me.

I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I could tell that Cole was royally pissed off—and Baby Face looked pale and frightened.

Michelle said something to Cole, and from the way he took three long, measured breaths, I had to assume he was trying to control his temper. Then he and Michelle led a very unhappy-looking Baby Face through the gallery and into the closed-off section.

I debated for only a minute, then followed.

When I reached the velvet rope, I peered into the closed section, but didn’t see them.

The painting that had caught my attention earlier was to the right, and I knew that the offices were toward the left.

Both were beyond the velvet rope, and I knew that if I slipped past it a second time, I’d be kicking good manners to the curb even while embracing my inner snoop.

I shrugged. Seemed like a reasonable trade-off to me.

I slipped into the gallery, took off my shoes so as to walk more softly, and made my way to the end of the hall and the large door that led to yet another corridor. This one ran parallel to the main gallery and housed the staff offices, studio space for Cole and the featured artists, restrooms, and supply closets.

The door was cracked open slightly, and since that was practically an invitation, I didn’t even hesitate. I was almost to Cole’s office when the door opened and Michelle slipped out.

I flattened myself against the wall, certain that the red dress was shining like a beacon and she would see me. But she walked in the opposite direction, continuing down the corridor until she reached the end and the door that led into the small front office that served as Liz’s primary domain.

The moment she disappeared through the door, I sagged with relief. Then immediately jumped when the sharp explosion of shattering glass echoed through the area, followed by Cole’s deep, angry, and tightly controlled voice.

“Goddammit, Conrad. Do you have any idea how easy —how goddamn fucking easy —it would be for me to kill you right now? What a goddamn pleasure it would be to snap your neck and put you out of my misery? Do you?

Do you?” I couldn’t hear Conrad’s reply, but I had the feeling it involved whimpering.

“If I ever hear that you’ve come sniffing around my people again, I swear to god I will rip your heart out. Now get the fuck out of here before I lose my goddamn temper.” Conrad must have taken Cole at his word, because he stumbled out of the door, as white as a sheet and moving so fast he jiggled. He turned toward me, then jumped even more when he saw me standing there.

He said, “Oh!” then jogged past me toward the door. I sagged back against the wall, relieved. And determined to follow Conrad out as soon as my heart rate slowed a tiny bit.

Determined or not, tonight no longer seemed like the best night for a seduction.

I drew in a breath, pushed away from the wall, and started to walk quietly toward the exit.

I’d gone only two steps when I froze, suddenly certain that Cole was behind me. I’d heard nothing. Seen nothing. But the air around me seemed to crackle, as if the remnants of Cole’s anger were making him hum like a live wire.



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