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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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“But I know him well enough to know that I don’t know him at all.” He shrugged. “He’s not one for oversharing.” “Neither am I. For that matter, neither are you.” He lifted his hands in a gesture of peace. “I’m not criticizing. I’m just stating a fact. And as for me, you know all my dark secrets.” I tapped the omelette with my fork and grinned. “Which is why I get such good treatment.” “True that.” He sucked down some of his mimosa.

“I’m just worried about you.

It’s like he’s become an obsession. And you’re not the kind of girl who obsesses.” Because he had a point, I said nothing.

“You ought to just walk away. I mean, for one, he pretty much told you to. And for another, there’s nobody in the world worth all the mental energy you’ve tossed toward this guy.” I frowned, turning his words over in my head. “Do you really believe that?” “Believe what?” “That no one is worth it.” The thought made me sad.

And made me think that Flynn felt more alone in the world than I’d realized.

He lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I guess the real question is whether Cole is worth it.” He flashed a wicked grin. “I mean, if you’re just looking to get laid, I’d be happy to oblige.” I rolled my eyes. “Not in a million years. Your professional expertise would make me self-conscious.” He smirked. “I’m retired, remember?” “And I’m glad.” For a few months, Flynn had supplemented his income by sleeping with bored, older society women. I think Angie suspected the truth, but I was the only one who knew for certain, primarily because I’d become suspicious and called him on it.

But while I might know his secrets, he still didn’t know mine. And I didn’t see any reason to alter that status quo.

“Even so,” I continued, “it would be weird. I know how tempting it must be to see me day in and day out, and not have a piece of me,” I added airily. “But I know you’ll survive the blue balls.” He grinned. “That’s why I love you, Kat. You don’t take my shit.” “I don’t take anybody’s shit.” “Except Cole’s.” I frowned, because I had to silently admit he had a point.

Because this was Pity Katrina Day, Flynn gave me a pass on our usual deal where he cooks and I clean. So while he gathered the plates, rinsed, and loaded the dishwasher, I looked idly on, my mind wandering over the conversation.

The truth was, even if there wasn’t the whole awkward friend thing hanging between us, I still wouldn’t sleep with Flynn. I rarely slept with anyone, actually, because I knew damn well what would happen. How I would react. How I would shut down.

That’s the main reason I knew that this craving for Cole was legitimate—and why I had to either pursue it or shut it down hard and fast and forever. Because even though I knew what would happen—even though I knew what I would remember, and even though I was certain that the shadows would creep up and consume me—I still wanted him more desperately and more tangibly than I’d ever wanted any man.

I caught myself shivering, and I hugged myself to ward off the memories.

Flynn caught the movement and frowned.

“You okay?” “Just a chill. I slept crappy last night.” “Big surprise there.” He finished off his drink and looked at me hard. “You need to talk to him, plain and simple. You know that, right?

If you’re not going to just drop it, then you need to suck it up and have the conversation. The guy wants you. You want him. You’ve come damn close, and yet he hasn’t laid you out and tossed up your skirt. You need to ask why.” “I’ve tried.” “Try harder.” I shrugged. I was getting tired of this being all about me. “You’re still cool with renting a room in the house, right?” He didn’t answer for a second, and I was afraid he was going to comment on my very obvious tactic to change the subject. To my relief, when he answered it was to say, “Hell, yes. But you really should let me split the mortgage.” “No way. It’s my house.

Or it will be next week.

You’re renting a room. We already made this deal.” I knew that money was tight for him. The airline kept cutting his shifts, and the tips for tending bar only went so far. I really didn’t want him to go back to the gigolo thing, but if money got tight, I was afraid that he’d do just that.

I pushed back from the table. “Thanks for the breakfast and the conversation. I should get out of here. I have errands and then wedding planning and then I’m going to crash early, because tomorrow I’m spending the pre-dawn hours slinging coffee. My life is so freaking glamorous.” “I know I’ve said it before, but it’s pretty damn cool the way you managed to pull together buying a house on a barista’s salary.” “I’m the kind of girl who gets what she wants,” I said, not mentioning that my plan had required faking a job at the gallery and pulling the down payment from the safe deposit box where I stored the cash I’d saved over the years from my various cons.





“Is that what this is about?” he asked.

I looked at him, baffled.

“What are you talking about?” “Cole,” he said. “Are you pushing so hard because he’s something you want but didn’t get?” “No,” I said automatically.

“Of course not.” But as I walked to my room to finish getting dressed, I had to wonder. Was everything I thought I felt for Cole just tweaked pride? Or was it truly something deeper?

And when you got right down to it, how the hell was I supposed to know the difference?

Since I thought that Flynn might be right, I decided to blow off a few house-related errands in favor of going by the gallery to see Cole.

“He hasn’t come in yet,” Liz said. She was a pretty blonde who used to be one of the dancers at Destiny.

One of the cooler things that the knights did was help the girls who worked at the club find the kind of jobs where they didn’t have to take off their clothes if they didn’t want to. They even paid for school or vocational training, and Tyler owned a placement agency that a lot of the girls used when they were ready to move on.

The really cool thing was that a number of the girls had been snared in a white trafficking ring, and the guys had managed to get them cut loose and gainfully employed. It was a lowprofile operation, but both Angie and Sloane were so proud of what their men had done that I had heard about it as well.

Now all three of the knights worked on and off with a federal task force that had taken down the ringleaders of the trafficking scheme. The case was still being investigated, but I imagined there would be a huge, media-circus-worthy trial one of these days.

“The gala went over great,” I told Liz. “You did an awesome job putting it together.” “Thanks,” she said, looking pleased. “Do you want to leave him a note or something?” I wasn’t sure that I did, but it seemed odd to show up and not say a thing. Besides, leaving a note was what civilized people did. “Can I just go back and put it on his desk?” “Sure,” she said, giving me a winning smile.

This time, when I walked down the corridor of offices and workspaces, I saw that the door to Cole’s studio was open. I caught a glimpse of something familiar and paused, then found myself drawn in by the image of a woman’s naked back—an image I’d seen before.

The canvas was propped on an easel, and though I’d originally thought that this was the same portrait that had intrigued me last night at the gala, I soon realized that the angle of this one was slightly different. It was another study of the same woman.

There was, however, one very obvious difference. This one was signed in a familiar scrawl.

Cole.

I remembered our conversation and bit back a smile. No wonder Cole had said the gallery would continue to feature the artist’s work.

Without realizing it, I’d walked all the way into the studio. Now I was only inches from the canvas. The perspective on the woman was almost the same as that of the portrait displayed in the gallery, with some subtle yet important differences.

Like the original portrait, the woman in this painting suggested beauty and purity.

She seemed vibrant, yet in control. Alive and aware and exceptional. A goddess, only here on earth.

It was a testament to Cole’s skill that he could evoke such a range of emotions and such vivid interpretations simply from his paintbrush. I’d known he was talented, but standing here now I was struck by the fact that his talent edged up against genius.

I took a step back, wanting to simply soak in the image. Right then, it was as close as I was going to get to Cole, and I didn’t want to waste the moment or the opportunity.

Unlike the portrait hanging in the gallery, this image wasn’t shielded by the fountain, and so there was no barrier between the woman and the audience. The details of her back were more clear, including a tan line that gave her a more human quality. On top of that, the image dipped lower, showing a few more inches of her hips and the two small dimples just above the swell of her ass.

I had dimples like that.

When I was a kid, I’d hated them. Now, I considered them an asset. A little sexy, a little flirty. I had to assume Cole thought so, too, otherwise why choose— I froze, my eyes drawn to an area just below the model’s left dimple. Was that... ?

I bent closer, then sucked in air. It was a tattoo.

More than that, it was the tattoo of a Latin expression.

Ad astra. To the stars.

Automatically, my hand snaked around to my own back, just below my own dimple. To my own tattoo of those exact words. Words that I’d grown up with because they were my father’s favorite saying.

I stepped back so that I could take in the entire portrait. It was me. I had no doubt anymore. That was my waistline. My hair. Even the way that the model’s head was tilted slightly to the side, the way I often did when I was thinking.

I’d been staring at myself, interpreting my own portrait, and I hadn’t even known it.

More than that, I’d had no idea that Cole was using me as a subject.

What the hell?

I thought about all the times I’d sunbathed on the roof of the condo with Angie.

The times that Evan had taken all of us out on his boat.

Cole had been watching me?

And not just watching me, but studying me.

Restless, I moved around the room, realizing as I did that the canvas on the easel wasn’t the only image of me.

Rough sketches littered a worktable, and as I looked down, I found myself staring back into my own eyes, taking in the curve of my own cheek, the swell of my own breasts.

Empirically, the work was exceptional. But that wasn’t what intrigued me.

Cole wanted me.

At the very least he was attracted to me, intrigued by me.

Obsessed with me.

That, apparently, was something we had in common.

So why the hell was he fighting so hard to stay away from me?

I drew in another breath and looked around this bright, airy room, seeing it this time as Cole might see it. It was filled with me. Or, at least, a version of me.

But the girl on the canvas and in those sketches was filled with light. She suggested purity and sweetness. There was nothing harsh or secretive about her.

She was me—and yet she wasn’t. And the pleasure I’d been feeling began to shift into something cold and unpleasant.

I don’t know who Cole saw when he looked at me, but he wasn’t seeing Katrina Laron, or any of the other names I’d used throughout the years.

He wasn’t even seeing Catalina Rhodes, the girl I’d started life as, but who had been erased long ago.

Had he not really been looking at me at all?

Or did he see something in me that I’d been hiding from everyone? Including myself?

six I’d planned to go straight from the gallery to The Drake hotel, where I was meeting Sloane and Angie for a liquid lunch before Sloane and I branched off to discuss Angie’s bachelorette party.

That would have been the smart thing to do, considering I could have walked between the two locations in under fifteen minutes, and the drive would take less than five.

But I was restless and out of sorts, and so I detoured from River North all the way to my soon-to-be new neighborhood of Roscoe Village, adding an hour to my travel time when you factored in the return trip and traffic.

Not to mention the minutes that would tick by as I sat in the car and gazed at the second thing in my life I was obsessing about.

Like Cole, my house was going to need a lot of TLC.

Unlike Cole, its curb appeal in its present state left a lot to be desired.

Then again, that was why I’d been able to get it cheap.

Or relatively cheap.

Considering the house consisted of less than one thousand square feet, had only one bathroom, and needed all new appliances, I wasn’t really sure that the six figures I was shelling out for the property could be considered “cheap” in anyone’s book.

But the place was about to be mine, and that made it worth any price to me.

Maybe that’s why I’d felt compelled to come here after seeing those drawings.



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