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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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They’d left me feeling edgy and unsure of who I was and what I wanted. And the fact that they had been so meticulously and lovingly created by Cole left me just as confused about what he wanted.

Considering all the canvases devoted to my image, you’d think he would’ve seized the opportunity to take me. But he’d walked away, and now my head was all but spinning.

The house soothed me. It was tangible. It was wood and brick and stone and nails.

With the house, what you saw was what you got.

With Cole, not so much.

I sighed, because that was the bottom line, wasn’t it?

Why I’d driven miles out of my way and was going to end up late to meet my friends?

Because every second of every day my mind was trying to unravel the mystery that was Cole. And not doing a very good job of it, either.

Frustrated, I got out of the car and walked to the front porch. I pressed my face against the window and looked inside, noting the battered hardwood floors that I would soon be sanding and refinishing. The dingy walls that seemed to cry out for a coat of paint.

This was more than a house, I realized. It was an anchor. Nine-hundred and twenty-four square feet tying me to Chicago and this life and my friends.

Katrina Laron.

Somewhere along the way, that’s the girl I’d settled on.

I pressed my forehead against the glass and sighed.

Had I really just been griping about not being able to figure out Cole? Had I actually been frustrated because he saw me as pure and innocent? Pretty unfair considering I changed who I was every five minutes.

Hypocrite, thy name is Katrina. Or Catalina.

Occasionally even Kathy.

God, I really was a train wreck.

Because the house didn’t yet belong to me, I technically wasn’t allowed inside. Technicalities rarely bothered me, though, because they only became a problem if you were caught breaking the rules. And even then, I could usually talk my way out of it.

The key was stored in the real estate lockbox, to which I also didn’t have access. I’d been here before, though, usually with my agent, Cyndee, and I’d been around the block enough times to know that one never misses an opportunity.

So when she punched in the combination, I’d paid attention to the code. I recalled it now easily enough —my father didn’t give a flip about my grades in school, but fail to remember something he told me to memorize, and I’d end up grounded for a week.

I entered the code, grabbed the key, and let myself in.

The air was stale and thick, and already stifling even though it wasn’t yet noon. But I breathed in deep anyway, because this stale air and everything surrounding it was going to be mine soon.

There was no furniture, so I didn’t sit. And I hadn’t come with any particular purpose, so I just started to wander, taking in the rooms, imagining how I would fix them up. Knowing that I could fix them up.

I sighed, understanding now why I’d been so determined to come here.

Maybe I couldn’t get what I wanted from Cole. But I could damn sure get this house to fall into line.

It didn’t take long to circle through the living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bath.

I took a peek at the backyard, then turned back toward the front door, my car, and my friends.

I was about to step out onto the porch when my cell phone rang. I dug it out of the back pocket of my jeans, then sucked in a breath when I saw the caller ID. Cole.

I hesitated a moment, but there was no way I was going to let this call roll to voicemail, even if I should.

So I bit my lower lip, then pressed my thumb on the green button.

I didn’t, however, say anything. Just my little nod to passive-aggressiveness.

“Liz told me you came by the gallery.” His voice was steady. Smooth. And I couldn’t read one damn thing into it.

“I did.” “If you were looking for an apology—” “No!” I blurted out the word, then immediately winced. So much for cool and collected. “Dammit, Cole,” I said, and though the words were harsh, my voice was gentle. “Don’t you understand that there is nothing to apologize for?” There was such a long pause before he spoke again that I started to fear the line had gone dead. When his words did come, they seemed to hang between us, heavy with emotion and regret.

“You tempt me, Kat.” “I guess that makes us even.” His low chuckle was like a balm, and I found myself smiling. “You’re a goddamn fool, blondie.” “But I’m not,” I said. “I’m smart, Cole. And I know what I want. You know what else?” I asked, but I didn’t wait to give him time to answer. “I know what you want, too.” “Really? And what is it I want?” “Me,” I said, then hoped that I hadn’t just taken another giant step away from him.

He said nothing—neither agreement nor protest—and so I pressed gamely on.

“I saw your studio space. I saw me.” “All right,” he said slowly. “And what did you think?” “The images are stunning, but I told you that last night when you found me looking at the one in the gallery.” “That was a poignant moment. The beautiful woman unaware she was looking at her own reflection.” “Beautiful,” I continued, “technically perfect. Pure.

But not me. Not really me at all.” “You’re wrong,” he said.

“The hell I am. I’m not pure. I’m not innocent.

Christ, Cole, you had your fingers inside me less than twenty-four hours ago, and it wasn’t me who walked away.” “Kat—” “No, listen to me. Please, Cole. Don’t you get it? I’m not the girl you painted. I’m not a goddamn angel. Do you have any idea how badly I wanted you last night? All of you. Your mouth, your cock.” “Jesus, Kat.” I heard the heat in his voice, and my pulse kicked up with the knowledge that maybe—just maybe—I was getting through to him. “And when you left me hanging, I swear to god I cursed you like a sailor. Would your innocent little model do that?” He said nothing, and I pressed on, determined to win this battle. Hell, determined to win the war. “You wanted it, too,” I said. “Tell me.

Please. I need to hear that I’m not crazy. I need to know that last night you wanted me just as much as I wanted you.” “I’ve wanted you from the first moment I saw you.” I closed my eyes, my body sagging from the pure relief of hearing the acknowledgment of what I’d been so sure about. I leaned against the dingy wall of this house that would be mine, sighed, and slid down to the floor in bliss.

“You can have me,” I said. “Any time. Any place.

Any way you want,” I added, saying the last in a whisper.

“No,” he said. “I can’t.” I cringed from the resolve in his voice.

“I can’t,” he repeated. “I can’t choose when, or where, and certainly not how. But when I look at you—when I paint you—” His voice had taken on a lyrical quality, and I held the words close, wanting to soak in this moment, because who knew how many more I would get? “Tell me.” “Put your phone on speaker,” he said. “Set it beside you.” I pressed the button to turn on the speaker. “All right.” “Good. You need to understand that when I paint you, it’s not just an image of you that is in front of me. It’s flesh. It’s blood.” “It’s me.” “Yes. The spill of your hair. The curve of your neck.

The swell of your breasts.” Gone was his earlier hesitancy. Instead, each word held masculine power. As if by painting me, he had claimed me, and I had no other choice but to submit.

“Go on,” I whispered. My eyes were still closed, but in my imagination, I saw myself sitting on a blanket at the Oak Street Beach. I was looking out at the water, but Cole was there, too, off to one side, so that I could see him only in my peripheral vision.

But though I could barely see him, I could feel him.

Every scrape of pencil over canvas was a tease, every stroke of paint from his brush was a caress.

“You’re mine when I paint you, Kat. Mine to touch, mine to stroke, mine to see.” My pulse pounded in my ears and my skin felt hot. I pulled up my T-shirt to expose my abdomen, then sighed from the caress of cool air upon my overheated flesh.

“And I do see you, Kat,” he said. “My brush doesn’t lie, and when I trail it over the curve of your waist and the swell of your hips, it’s not just lines and form that I’m bringing to life on the canvas, but you. Tell me, Kat. Tell me you understand that.” “Yes,” I said, because right then I couldn’t seem to think of any other word.

“When I paint you, I capture you. Light. Shadows.

I see more than I put on the canvas, Kat. I see everything.

The face you show the public, the most intimate parts of you that you keep hidden.” I made a small noise that might have been a protest, because that couldn’t be true.

He couldn’t know me that well; he couldn’t see my secrets.

“Don’t you feel me, Kat?

Don’t you feel my eyes exploring, assessing, deciding what I am willing to show to the world and what I want to keep to myself?” My body, I thought with relief. He doesn’t mean my secrets, but my body.

“I feel you,” I whispered, my voice like air.

“My brush moving softly over your lips,” he said, as I drew my fingertip gently over my mouth. “Then down, lower and lower until I can tease your breasts. Until I’m exploring the shadows that fall between them and the way your skin glows, almost translucent when the sun teases your nipples. Are they hard now, Kat?” “Very.” “Take your nipple between your fingers and pinch it. I want it harder, a deep, sensual red. I want to paint you aroused, Kat. The glow on your face and the flush of your skin. Do it, Kat.

Do it and let me see.” “You’re not here,” I protested, though I willingly complied.

“I’m always there,” he replied, and those words combined with the tight pinch of my own fingers against my sensitive nipples brought a moan to my lips.

I arched up, then whispered his name and was rewarded with a low, masculine groan.

“I want to paint you while you come,” he said. “I want to capture ecstasy, Kat. Let me do that, angel. Let me do that now.” “Cole...” I heard the protest in my voice. An unwelcome, unexpected shyness.

“No,” he said. “No argument, no denials. I want to see you. I want to watch your body tighten and then explode. I want to see it, Kat, even if only in my imagination.” I licked my lips, wanting it, too, but unsure if it was even possible. I’d never come with a man calling the shots in my bed. Not since—not in a very long time. But this...

Maybe this...

“Where are you?” “My house.” “Alone?” I thought about the words he’d been saying to me.

“Well, duh.” He chuckled. “Some women like an audience.” “Oh.” I considered what he’d said earlier about me being innocent. Maybe he wasn’t so far off the mark.

“I’m alone.” “What are you wearing?” “Jeans. A T-shirt.” “Take off the jeans. Leave on your panties.” “I—” “No,” he said. “You don’t argue. You simply do or hang up.” I felt my mouth curve up in pleasure as I kicked off my sandals, then shimmied out of my jeans. “All right,” I said.

“In your house,” he said, his tone musing, “there’s a row of windows overlooking the front porch, and it’s a gorgeous day. The sun should be streaming in.” My gaze flicked to the checkerboard pattern that the sunlight made on the battered wooden floor, blocks of light intersected by the dark shadows made by the frames that held each small pane of glass in place. “How did you know that? You’ve only been here once.” “I paid attention,” he said.

“Because that’s what you do? Or because this house was going to be mine?” “Move to the light,” he said, and though it wasn’t an answer I heard the truth in his voice. Maybe he did pay attention out of habit, but he’d noticed this house because it was my house.

Because he noticed me.

How could I have been unsure before? How could I have feared that whatever attraction I saw on his face was only a reflection, especially now that it was becoming so obvious that he had seen me—wanted me— long enough to make me mourn the lost opportunity of all the months that had passed in silent longing?

“Kat,” he said, his voice firm. “Now.” “Oh.” I shuffled into the stream of sun, then sighed as I felt the intensity of the warmth across my body.

There was no air-conditioning in the house—not with the tenants having moved out— and so my body was already close to melting. But now, with the sun tickling my bare legs, I felt logy and sensual, soft and sleepy.

At the same time, I felt turned on.

It was an interesting mix, and I couldn’t deny that I liked it.

“I want to paint the patterns of light as they hit your abdomen,” he said.

“Trace them for me. Drag your fingers over your skin.

Are you doing it? Can you feel the way the warmth is seeping into you?” “Yes.” “That’s the sunlight, Kat.

And it’s my brush. My eyes.

I’m studying you. The way your muscles quiver as I touch you. The way your belly tightens when you’re aroused.” I swallowed. He was right.

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