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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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“I’m sorry,” I said, as I began to turn around. “I didn’t mean to—” But the words died on my lips. He was right there, his huge frame filling the hallway, his muscles tight, his expression ferocious.

His hands were clenched in fists by his sides. I could see the effort that was required to hold himself together, and I knew that all it would take was one wrong word to completely rip him apart.

I spoke anyway.

Maybe I was trying to soothe. Maybe I wanted the explosion.

All I knew was that I wanted to hear his name on my lips and see that fierce intensity in his eyes directed at me.

I was playing with fire, and so help me, I didn’t care.

“Cole,” I said, then stopped when my voice seemed to set him in motion.

His long strides brought him right in front of me.

Instinctively, I took a single step back, then felt his hand close around my upper arm.

I felt the brush of his breath against my face as he issued one single command.

“No.” Heat seemed to radiate through me, spreading out from that spot where his hand remained pressed to my bare skin. I could practically smell his anger—that violent, wild fury. He was heated and unpredictable and if I had any instinct for self-preservation, I knew that I should be terrified.

I wasn’t.

Instead, my whole body tingled in reaction to the undiluted sensuality of this man, and I wanted to close my eyes and soak it in. I wanted to feel it hotter, wilder.

I wanted everything he had to give—and it pissed me off that he wasn’t giving it.

Deliberately, I turned to look at my arm. At that singular spot where he was touching me. Then I tilted my head back so that I was looking straight into his eyes once again.

“Yes,” I said, and despite the deep, fathomless brown, I could see the way his pupils dilated in response to my words.

I held my breath, wanting the touch that I was certain would come, then almost screamed in frustration when he released me.

“Go back to the party, Kat,” he said, then turned away from me and very deliberately walked back to his office.

What the fuck?

“Goddamn you, Cole August,” I shouted, ignoring the irony that it was me—not him—who’d actually popped.

I hurried after him, then reached out and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt just as he reached his doorway. “Do you think I’m scared of you?

Of this? I’m not.” “You should be.” His voice was as low and as ominous as his expression.

He was on edge. I knew it.

I could see it. And I really didn’t care. I was on edge, too. For that matter, I’d jumped headlong into the chasm, and now I was tumbling through space.

I didn’t know where I would land. All I knew was that I wanted Cole to be the one to catch me.

“Maybe I should,” I admitted. “But I really don’t give a damn.” And then, before I could talk myself out of it, I used my grip on his Tshirt as leverage, drew myself up on my tiptoes, and closed my mouth over his.

The kiss was like falling through hell to land in heaven. His mouth was hard at first, unyielding. Then his fingers twined in my hair and his other hand cupped the small of my back, pressing me forward until I was right against him.

I felt his erection like hard steel trapped inside his jeans, the swell of it pressing provocatively against my abdomen.

Had I really been thinking about dropping this quest? Of walking away from this man who could make me feel so incredible?

What kind of idiocy was that? And thank god I hadn’t listened to my own foolish notions.

He shifted against me, and I released a groan of pure, self-satisfied lust. The sound seemed to break something inside him, and the kiss turned wilder, our mouths joined as I wanted our bodies to be. His tongue exploring, tasting, driving me crazy and making me spin just a little bit out of myself, because otherwise how could I survive this onslaught of sensation?

He broke the kiss, then leaned back, breathing hard.

I grabbed his collar and drew him back. “Don’t you dare,” I said, not the least bit surprised that my voice sounded more like a growl than spoken words.

“Christ, Kat.” Because I feared his words were a protest or a dismissal, I tightened my grip on his shirt and yanked him forward, unbalancing him. He barked out a curse, and I saw the mixture of irritation and heat and lust flash across his face.

There was power there, too, but the control I’d seen earlier was gone now, replaced by a wild, determined need.

For the flash of an instant I feared that I had pushed too far. Then he was on me, and there was no room for fear anymore. Just need and heat and lust and passion.

His hands closed over my shoulders, and I vaguely acknowledged the sound of the door banging shut. Then the room was spinning as he whirled me around and slammed me hard against the wall.

The gallery space had once been a warehouse, and he had me pressed against the original exposed brick. I felt its rough texture grating against my shoulders and bare arms, and each sting of that contact seemed to heighten the thrill of Cole’s hands upon my body.

His fingers closed around the collar of my dress, and he yanked it down, ripping the material. I gasped, thrilled and delighted as he closed his hand tight over my breast, his fingers teasing my already tight, overly sensitive nipple.

With his other hand, he tugged my skirt up, and as his mouth closed over my breast, he shoved my panties aside, then moaned when he realized I was waxed.

“Christ, you feel good,” he said, as he thrust his fingers roughly inside me.

I was wet and open and ready—and my body clenched around him, wanting to draw him in, to be as close to him as humanly possible.

“Kat,” he murmured as he moved from my breast to my neck to my mouth. “Christ, the taste of you.” “Don’t stop,” I begged, as his fingers thrust harder and harder inside me.

“You make me—” “What?” “Feel,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, surprised that one word could convey so much. “Oh, yes.” His mouth closed over my breast again, and I writhed against the rough wall, each scrape of the rough brick against my skin like an underscore to our passion.

I wanted him inside me, and I silently begged for him to just take me, to fuck me, and not to ask or tell, but to just do. I wanted to be his—I wanted to simply belong.

There was a couch about three feet to my right, and he took my hand and drew me roughly toward it. His mouth covered mine, and as his tongue teased me, his fingers yanked my skirt up the rest of the way up to around my waist. Then he whipped me around, his palms on my ass as he bent me over to spread me, to take me, and I moaned aloud in sweet anticipation, because wasn’t this what I’d been wanting this entire night? Hell, this entire year?

I felt his fingers graze over the raw and sensitive skin on my shoulder. And I sucked in air, realizing for the first time how thoroughly the brick had abraded my skin.

“I hurt you.” “No,” I said, as something cracked inside me. It hurt, yes. But I liked it.

I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that it was true. I liked the pain—not pain by itself, but pain that came from him. From our shared passion.

I wanted him to have that —the power to hurt me. I wanted him to keep it close like a gift. Because somehow that made me his.

I wanted to explain that, to make him understand, but I couldn’t find the words.

“I hurt you,” he repeated, and this time I heard the low, agonized tone of self-loathing in his voice.

“You haven’t,” I whispered, rushing to reassure him and cursing myself for not finding the words sooner. “Please, Cole, no.” But he wasn’t listening, and I felt suddenly cold and exposed. I started to turn, to shift, to put my dress right. I couldn’t, though. He had one hand on my waist and the other on my shoulder.

The one on my waist kept steady pressure, keeping me bent forward and helpless.

The hand on my shoulder grazed lightly over my newly raw skin. Skin that only moments before had burned with a pain that punctuated pleasure, but that now just stung, almost shamefully.

“Christ,” he said, and this time his voice was so low that I almost couldn’t make out the word.

“Cole,” I said gently. “It’s okay.” “Okay?” His voice was taut, a precursor to an explosion. He released me, and I stood up, carefully smoothing my skirt down even as I felt my cheeks burn.

What had been one of the most erotic and exciting moments of my life had shifted totally off-kilter.

He held out his hand, and I saw that his fingertips were streaked with my blood. “I did that to you.” “You didn’t,” I said. I turned around, then tried to adjust my dress. “Cole,” I said softly. “Please. I want this.” “What?” The word was harsh. “What do you want, Kat? What could you possibly want from me?” He held out his hand again.

“Pain? Blood?” “Maybe.” I lifted my chin and met his eyes. “You said I owed you. Well, I’m willing to give whatever payment you want.” “You have no idea want what I want or what you’re saying.” “The hell I don’t,” I countered. “Don’t you get it, Cole? I want you. Whatever or however that means, I want you.” Something flickered in his eyes, something that looked a bit like hope. But it was gone before I could be certain.

He took a step backward, and I had never seen him look more sad. “I may not have a lot of self-restraint. But I have enough. And I’m not taking you down with me.” “Cole, please.” He turned to leave, then paused at the door to look back at me. “I tore your dress.” I fingered the rip in the neckline that exposed the lace of my bra and the swell of my breast. Despite my confusion and embarrassment and total frustration, my impulse was to rip it further. To rip the whole goddamn dress off. To stand naked in front of him.

Tempting him. Testing him.

Instead, all I said was “Yes.” “I’ll have Red drive you home,” he said, referring to the driver he shared with Evan and Tyler.

“Fuck that. I can find my own way home.” Our eyes met, and for a moment I thought I saw regret. Then it cleared, and he simply nodded. “Take a jacket if you want,” he said, indicating a coat tree on the far side of the room.

Then he left, leaving me standing alone in his office, my dress ripped and my emotions equally in tatters.

five “Avocado, salmon, and cream cheese,” Flynn said as he slid a plate loaded with the world’s biggest omelette in front of me. “Orange juice,” he added, following the plate with a champagne glass. “Of the mimosa variety. And— because what is breakfast without bacon?—a nice, crunchy side of pig fat.” I lifted a brow as he put a plate of bacon on the small wooden table that took up most of the apartment’s minuscule breakfast area.

“And I’m supposed to eat all of this how?” “One forkful at a time.” He filled his own plate, then plunked himself down in the chair opposite me. “Consider it guilt food. I was out getting laid last night while you were home doing the morose girl routine.” “When you put it that way,” I said, then dug in.

There are many benefits to rooming with Flynn. He’s the best cook I’ve ever met. He’s diligent about paying the rent on time. He works as a flight attendant, so he’s often gone for long stretches, thus fulfilling my need for alone time. And when he’s in town, he often picks up a shift at John Barleycorn, a local pub, which also fulfills that solitude thing, but has the added bonus of providing a place to go for drinks with good service guaranteed.

He’s been friends with Angie for years and gets along great with Sloane, so there’s none of the awkwardness that sometimes comes when circles of friends overlap. More than that, he’s easy on the eyes. And he’s straight.

It was that last characteristic that had intrigued me the most when I woke up that morning. Not because I wanted to sleep with him, but because he could provide insight into Cole. At least, I’d hoped he could.

I’d shared the basic overview of what had transpired at the gala while he cracked eggs and fried bacon.

Once I had the lightly edited sordid tale out there, I asked him to play shrink and get into Cole’s head for me.

“Like anyone could get inside Cole August,” he said.

“Or any of them, for that matter. But Cole...” He trailed off with a shrug and a shake of his head.

“What?” “I’ve known him for as long as Angie has, although I didn’t hang out with him or the others as much, especially once Jahn started spending most of his time in the condo instead of the house,” he added, referring to Angie’s uncle and the downtown condo that she’d inherited when he’d passed away a little over a year ago.

“But?” I pressed.

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