Ignited

Most Wanted - Cole's Story

He promised to take me as far as I could go—and I wanted to go to the edge.
 
My whole life has been a cover, a con, a lie. I was born into the grift, raised on the thrill of playing someone I’m not. As a rule, I never let anyone get too close—until Cole August makes it impossible for me to stay away.

Cole is tough, sexy, and intensely loyal, yet his secrets are dark and his scars run deep. Not many women can handle his past, or the truth behind his fierce demands. But something about him beckons me—and our desire is a game I must play.

I know he’s dangerous, that even his touch is trouble, but what is passion without a little risk?

BONUS: This edition includes excerpts from J. Kenner’s Say My Name and Release Me.
 
Ignited is intended for mature audiences.

About this Story

Primary Characters Cole August Katrina "Kat" Laron (Catalina Rhodes) Secondary Characters Tyler Sharp Sloane Watson Angelina Raine Evan Black Series Most Wanted Place in Series Story #3 Genre Contemporary Romance

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Cons and games, lies and deceit.

Those aren’t just words to me, but a way of life.

For years, I’ve tried to escape—to be other than my father’s daughter—but time and again I have failed.

Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe I didn’t want to. I like the rush, after all. The challenge.

I have more than twenty years of the grift behind me, and I thought I knew it all. Thought I understood risk. Thought I knew the definition of danger.

Then I saw him.

Raw and carnal, dark and dangerous.

I didn’t know risk until I met him. Didn’t understand danger until I looked into his eyes. Didn’t comprehend passion until I felt his touch.

I should have stayed away, but how could I when he was everything I craved? When I knew that he could fulfill my darkest fantasies?

I wanted him, plain and simple.

And so I set out to play the most dangerous game of all . . .

I stood in the middle of the newly opened Edge Gallery, my heels planted on the polished wood floor and the brilliant white walls of the main exhibit space coming close to blinding me.

 Around me, politicians mingled with hipsters as they buzzed from one painting to the next like bees around a flower. Male waiters in sharply creased tuxes carried wine-topped trays with purpose, while their similarly attired female counterparts offered tasty morsels that were such works of art themselves it seemed a shame to eat them.

Tonight’s sparkling gala celebrated the opening of this newest addition to Chicago’s well-known River North gallery district, and everyone who was anyone was here. And not just because of the art. No, the crowd tonight had come as much to mingle with the owners as to celebrate the opening.

And why not? Tyler Sharp and Cole August were among Chicago’s elite. They, along with their friend and frequent business partner Evan Black, made up the knights—a triangle of power within the Chicago stratosphere. The fact that their power stemmed from both legitimate and illegitimate means only added to their dark, edgy coolness.

Not that the illegitimate side of the equation was public knowledge, but it did add a sort of mysterious sheen to these deliciously sexy men who made the press drool. I knew the truth because I was best friends with Evan’s fiancée, Angelina Raine, and that friendship had spread to include all the knights. At least, that’s what Angie and the knights believe. In reality, I’d realized the guys weren’t squeaky clean entrepreneurs within a day of meeting them.

Like knows like, after all.

For that matter, like attracts like. At least, that’s what I hoped. Because although I truly did want to celebrate the opening, I’d really come here for one purpose, and one purpose only: to finally and completely get Cole August’s attention—and then get him in my bed.

Not that I was progressing like lightning toward that goal. I’d come without a solid plan—something I never do—and after ninety minutes of mingling, I’d spoken only fourteen words to Cole, and that was at the door as I’d entered. I knew there were fourteen words, because I’d played the encounter—I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conversation—over and over in my head. A form of mental torture, I guess, as I wallowed in my own insipidness.

 “I’m so thrilled for you both.”

“Thanks, Kat. We’re glad you could make it.”

“Me, too. Well, I’ll let you mingle. Later.”

I shook my head at myself. Honestly, if my father had been around to overhear that exchange, he would have disowned me on the spot. Hadn’t he taught me the art of making small talk? Of pulling people in? Of getting close so that you can get what you want?

Planning and focus have always been second nature to me. I’d grown up in the grift, and I’d known the ins and outs of designing a long con even before I knew my multiplication tables.

Tonight wasn’t about a con, though. Tonight was about me.

And apparently that one little fact was enough to throw me entirely off my game.

Well, damn.

I shifted slightly so that I could look at the object of my mission. I found him easily enough—Cole August is not the kind of man who blends. Right then he was working the room, discussing art with both serious buyers and casual friends.

Art was his passion, and it was easy to see how much tonight meant to him. The two featured artists—a South Side tagger whom Cole had found and pulled out of the ghetto and a world-renowned painter who specialized in hyperrealism—worked the crowd alongside him.

Cole moved with a raw power and casual arrogance that both suggested his own South Side upbringing and also defied it. I knew that he’d once been entrenched in a gang, but he’d pulled himself out of the muck to become one of the most powerful men in Chicago. As I watched him, it was easy to see the confidence and grace that got him there.

I stared, a little mesmerized, a little giddy, as Cole continued through the room. He was dressed simply in black jeans that showed off his perfect ass, and a white T-shirt that both accented the dark caramel skin of his mixed-race background, and subtly reminded the guests that Cole hadn’t been born to money and privilege. He wore his hair short, in an almost military style buzz cut, and the style drew attention to the slightly tilted eyes that missed nothing, not to mention the hard planes of his cheekbones and that wide, firm mouth that seemed molded to drive a woman crazy.

He was sex on a stick—and all I wanted was to taste him.

I’ve never played the relationship game, and I’ve rarely craved men. That bit of self-denial stemmed more from pragmatism than any lack of libido on my part. Why torment them and myself by revealing my sexual quirks, and then suffer the inevitable angst and hurt feelings when they’re unable to achieve what a sixty dollar cylinder of vibrating rubber could manage so easily?

And to be honest, most of the men who crossed my path were less stimulating—both intellectually and physically—than anything tucked away in my toy drawer.

Cole, however, was different.

Somehow, he’d snuck into my thoughts. He’d filled my senses. I’d felt that tug the first time I’d laid eyes on him, and that was years ago. But over the past few months, he’d become an obsession, and I knew that if I wanted to get clear of him, I had to push through.

I had to have him.

 I’d come here tonight determined to get what I wanted—and now I was more than a little perturbed at myself for not having immediately leaped fully and confidently into the dark waters of seduction.

I knew why I hadn’t, of course. It was because I wasn’t certain that my advances would be welcome, and I wasn’t a big fan of disappointment.

Yes, I thought that he was attracted to me—I’d felt that zing when our hands brushed and the trill of electricity in the air when we stood close together.

At least once or twice when I’d caught his eyes the illusion of friendship had turned to ash—burned away by the heat I’d seen in him. But those moments lasted only a few brief and fluttering seconds. Just enough to whet my appetite, and to make me fervently hope that the heat I saw was real—and not simply the desperate reflection of my own raging desire.

 Because what assurance did I have that it wasn’t all me? Maybe I was projecting attraction where none existed and, like a moth, I was going to get singed when I fluttered too close to the flame.

Still, I’d never know if I didn’t go all in and find out. Maybe I’d fumbled the ball with my crappy conversation, but the night was young, and I gave myself a mental pep talk as I wandered the gallery, gliding through the flotsam and jetsam of gossip and business talk. Everything from catty comments about other women’s clothing, to speculation as to the best place for a post-gala meal, to praise for the undeniable skill of the various artists represented at the opening. A few people I knew casually made eye contact, politely shifting their stance as if to welcome me into their conversation.

I pretended not to notice. Right then, I was lost in my own head, trying to wrap my mind around what I wanted and how I intended to get it.

 The gallery was shaped like a T, with the main exhibit hall—which displayed the work of tonight’s two featured artists—being the stem, and the crossbar being the more permanent exhibits. I’d been to the gallery before, so I knew the general layout, and I wandered the length of the room to where the two wings intersected.

There was a velvet rope blocking guests from entering the permanent area, but I’ve never paid much attention to rules. I slipped between the wall and the brass post that held the rope secure, then moved to the right so that I would be out of sight of the rest of the guests. After all, I wasn’t in the mood for either a lecture on proper party etiquette or company.

The last time I’d been in this area, the section had still been under construction. The walls had been unpainted and the glass ceiling had been covered with a dark, protective film. The long, narrow room had been gloomy and a little claustrophobic. Now it extended in front of me like a walkway to paradise.

Tonight, the glass ceiling was transparent. Outside, lights mounted on the roof shone down to provide the illusion of daylight, and all around me the area glowed with artificial sunlight and the bright colors of the various pieces on display.

Beautifully polished teak benches ran down the center of the room, each separated by bonsai trees, so that both the seating and the decoration were as artistic as the architecture and the contents. And yet there was nothing overpowering about the room. Even tonight, with the hum of voices flowing in from the main gallery, I felt the blissful freedom of solitude.

With a sigh, I sat on one of the benches, realizing only as I did that I’d chosen this spot for a specific purpose. The image in front of me had caught my eye. No, more than that. It had compelled me. Drawn me in. And now I sat and studied it.

 I knew a little bit about art, though not as much as my father. And certainly not as much as Cole. But it’s fair to say that I’ve paid my dues in the kind of art gallery that caters to clients who embody that perfect trifecta of too much money, too much time, and too much property.

 I couldn’t count the number of days I’d spent in high heels and a pencil skirt, extolling the virtues of a particular piece. I’d rave about the astounding deal the buyer could get because our client—“no, no, I can’t share his identity, but if you read the European papers, you’ve surely heard of him”—was desperate to unload an original master that had been in the family for generations. “Hard times,” I’d say with a resigned shake of my head. “You understand.”

 And the buyer would frown and nod sympathetically, all the while thinking about this amazing bargain, and how they could one-up the Smiths at the next garden party.

I’d never sold an actual work by an actual master in my life, but the pieces I had passed held an equal appeal, at least to the eye if not to the investment portfolio.

But this painting before me put all the others I’d dealt with to shame. It was the view of a woman from behind. She was seated on the edge of a fountain, so that from the artist’s perspective she was seen through shimmering beads of water that seemed to form a living curtain. A kind of barrier between her and the world. It gave the illusion that she was a creature of pure innocence, and yet that was not an asset. Instead, her innocence rendered her untouchable, even though it was clear that all anyone had to do was slip through the water to reach her.

 The angle of view was such that her hips were not visible. Instead we saw only the curve of her waist, the unblemished skin of her back, and her blond hair that fell in damp curls that ended near her shoulder blades.

There was something familiar about her. Something magnetic. And for the life of me, I had no clue what it was.

“It’s one of my favorites.”

The familiar deep voice pulled me from my trance. Flustered, I turned to face Cole, then immediately wished I hadn’t. I should have taken a moment to prepare myself first, because I heard my own gasp as I sank deep into those chocolate eyes.

“I—” I closed my mouth. Clearly I had lost all ability to think or speak or function in society. I fervently hoped the floor would just open up and swallow me, but I’d be okay with an alien abduction, too.

Neither of those things happened, though, and I found myself just sitting there staring at him while the corner of his mouth—that gorgeous, rugged, kissable mouth—twitched with what I could only assume was amusement.

“I’m sorry I slipped back here. It was getting too crowded in there for me, and I needed some air.”

Concern flickered across his face. “Is something wrong, Catalina? You looked pre-occupied.”

“I’m fine,” I said, though I trembled a bit, unnerved as always when he called me by my given name. Not that he actually knew my real name. As far as Cole and all my friends in Chicago were concerned, I was Katrina Laron. Catalina Rhodes didn’t exist to them. For that matter, she didn’t exist for me, either. She hadn’t for a long, long time.

Sometimes, I missed her.

About eight months ago, a group of us had been having dinner together. Cole started talking about an upcoming trip to Los Angeles, and how he intended to visit Catalina Island. I don’t even remember the details of the conversation, but by the end of it, my new nickname had stuck.

I’d rolled my eyes and pretended to be irritated, but the truth of it was that I liked the intimacy of hearing my birth name on his lips. It meant that we shared a secret, he and I, even if I was the only one of us who knew it.

Not that Catalina was an exclusive nickname. Cole also called me “blondie” and “baby girl,” though he tended to reserve the latter for Angie, who had been a teenager when he’d met her.

Catalina was my favorite of the endearments, of course. But I wasn’t picky. However Cole wanted to mark me was fine by me.

 Right then, he stood to my right and frowned down at me. “I’m fine,” I repeated, with a little more force this time. “Really. I was lost in thought, and you startled me. But I’m back now.”

“I’m glad.” His voice was smooth, almost prep-school cultured. He’d worked at it, I knew. He rarely talked about the time he’d spent in gangs, the things he’d had to overcome. Hell, he barely even talked about the two years he’d spent in Italy, studying art on scholarship. But it had all come together to make the man. And right then, in that moment, I was glad he never talked about it to the press or his clients. But I fervently wished that he would talk about it to me.

Yeah, I was a mess all right.

I stood up, then wiped my hands down the red material that clung provocatively to my thighs. I hoped it looked like I was smoothing my skirt. Instead, I was drying my sweaty palms.

 “I’m going to go track down one of the girls with sushi,” I said. “I didn’t eat dinner and I think I’m feeling a little light-headed.” I didn’t mention that he was the reason my head was spinning.

“Stay.” He reached out and closed his fingers around my wrist. His hand was huge, but his grip was surprisingly tender. His skin was rough, though, and I remembered how much of the work in the gallery he’d done himself, assembling frames, hanging canvases, moving furniture. Not to mention painting his own canvases. He must spend hours holding a wooden brush, moving carefully and meticulously in order to get exactly what he wanted—color, texture, total sensuality.

Slowly, as if he was intentionally trying to drive me crazy, he let his eyes drift over me. I fought the urge to shiver—to close my eyes and soak in the fantasy of this deliberate caress.

Instead, I watched his face. Watched his expression grow hot, almost feral, as if he wanted nothing more in that moment than to touch me—to take me.

Do it, I thought. Right here, right now, just do it and let me have thought and reason back. Take me, dammit, and free me.

But he didn’t pull me close. Didn’t press his hands to my ass and grind his cock against my thighs. Didn’t slam me against the wall and press his mouth to mine while one hand closed tight around my breast and the other yanked up my skirt.

He did nothing but look at me—and in looking made me feel as though he’d done all those things.

He also made me feel better about the abuse I’d put my credit card through to buy this outfit. The dress was fire engine red, had a plunging neckline, and hugged every one of my curves. And while I might sometimes think that my curves were more appropriate for a 1940s film noir wardrobe, I can’t deny that I filled out the dress in a way that Cole seemed to appreciate.

I’d worn my mass of blond curls clipped up, letting a few tendrils dangle loose to frame my face. My red stilettos perfectly matched the dress and added four inches to my already ample height, putting me just about eye level with this man. If you looked up “fuck me heels” in the dictionary, a picture of these shoes would be on the page.

I wanted to stay right there, lost in the way he was looking at me.

At the same time, I wanted to run. To get away and regroup. To figure out how in hell I could manage to control a seduction when I couldn’t even control myself.

Escape won out, and I tugged gently at my arm to free it.

To my surprise, his grip tightened. I frowned at him, a little confused, a whole lot hopeful.

“I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

“My thoughts?”

“The painting,” he said. “What do you think of it?”

“Oh.” Cold disappointment washed over me. “The painting.”

I gave my arm another tug and this time, to my regret, he released me.

“You like it?”

“I love it,” I said, both automatically and truthfully. “But there’s something—I don’t know—sad about it.”

His brows lifted slightly, and for a moment I thought he looked mildly amused. As if he’d understood the punch line of a joke a few moments before I did. Except I never got there at all.

“It’s not sad?” I asked, turning back to look at the image.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Art is what you make of it. If you think it’s sad, then I suppose it is.”

“What is it to you?”

“Longing,” he said.

I turned from the painting to him, sure that my face showed my question.

“Not sadness so much as desire,” he said, as if that explained his response. “Her desires are like gemstones, and she holds them close, and each one presses sharp edges into the palm of her hand.”

I thought about that as I looked back at the painting. “Do you think that way because you are an artist? Or are you an artist because you think that way?”

He chuckled, the sound both mild and engaging. “Shit, Catalina. I don’t know. I don’t think I could separate one from the other.”

“Well, the most eloquent thing I can say is that I like it. I realize it’s not one of the featured pieces, but I hope you’re going to show more of the artist’s work. It’s compelling.” I leaned closer, looking for a signature on the canvas or an information card on the wall. I found neither. “Who’s the artist?”

“Don’t worry, blondie,” Cole said, his eyes flicking quickly to the painting. “We’ll keep him around.” Now I was certain I heard amusement in his voice, and since I wasn’t sure what the joke was, it ticked me off.

I cocked my head, feeling more in control now that he was irritating me. “Okay, tell me. What am I missing?”

He moved to step in front of me, blocking the painting. Hell, blocking everything. He filled all of my senses, making me a little drunk merely from his proximity. The sight of him before me, the scent of his cologne, all spice and wood and male. Even the echo of his voice played in my head, those radio-quality tones making me want to shiver.

I didn’t have his touch, but the sensation of his hand upon my skin still lingered, and I clung tight to the memory. And as for taste—well, a girl could only hope.

Eternity passed in the space of seconds, and when he spoke, there was a musing note to his voice, as if he were speaking more to himself than to me. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” I asked, but by the time the words escaped my lips, the spell was broken, and it was as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

“It’s an important night for Tyler and me,” he said, his voice now tight with formality. “I’m glad you came, but I should get back to the rest of the guests.”

The abrupt change in his tone disappointed me, but I clung greedily to the words themselves, and tried to ignore the rest. He’d said I’m glad. Not we’re glad.

And I, apparently, had reached a new level of pathetic if I’d sunk so low as to be analyzing pronouns.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I said, hoping my own voice didn’t reveal the loose grip I had on my sanity.

He flashed me that killer smile, then turned toward the main gallery. But after only two steps, he stopped, then looked back at me. “By the way, you owe me,” and this time there was no denying the humor on his face.

“Oh, really? And why is that?”

“How is it you started working here three months ago and I didn’t notice? That’s not like me at all. And, frankly, Kat, if you’d spent that much time at my side, I assure you it would have caught my attention.”

That spark of heat was back in his voice, but I barely noticed it. Instead, I’d turned a little cold. A string of curses whipped through my mind, and I had to force myself not to spit out a choice one or two.

Instead, I did what I’d been trained my whole life to do—I got my shit together and ran with it. “Oh my god, Cole, I’m so sorry. I meant to mention weeks ago that the mortgage company might be calling, but I got caught up in helping Angie with wedding prep stuff, and now I’m closing next week and I’ve been packing, and then—”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I get it.”

“It’s just that my hours at the coffee shop haven’t ever been steady, and I didn’t want the underwriting people to think I don’t have the means to make my payments.”

“It’s okay,” he repeated. “Buying a house is a very big deal. It’s cool. It’s been well over a week since they called, and I verified everything. If they haven’t requested any more information from you by now, then I’d say you’re good to go.”

He met my eyes once more, trapping me in his gaze just a little too long for comfort. Whatever humor had been in his face before had vanished. Instead, I saw only a vibrant, sensual intensity. “But like I said, you owe me.”

I swallowed, and despite the dryness in my mouth, I managed to form words. “Whatever you want,” I said, and I could only hope that he understood the full meaning of my words.

His gaze lingered a moment longer. Then he inclined his head as if in dismissal. “I’ll see you back in the main gallery.”

Once again he turned and walked away from me.

 This time, he didn’t look back.

Chapter 2

It took me a few minutes to gather myself before I returned to the party, and the moment I slipped around the rope barrier and felt the press of gaiety and chatter all around me, I knew that I should have taken a few minutes more.

You owe me, he’d said.

Whatever you want, I’d promised.

Did he understand how completely I meant those words? Had it really been desire I’d seen when he’d looked at me? And, if so, what was he going to do about it?

For that matter, what was I going to do about it?

Apparently I’d just come full circle. I’d started the evening with the intention of seducing Cole August. And despite the electricity that had crackled between us, I don’t think I’d come even the slightest bit closer to that goal.

How’s that for a complete failure to meet a mission objective?

Once again, I was not doing my father proud. Maybe if I thought of Cole as a mark rather than as a man . . .

I started to run my fingers through my hair, then caught myself before I accidentally pulled it out of the clip. Since I desperately wanted something to do with my hands, I waved down a svelte, dark-haired waitress. I spent a moment debating between a spring roll and sushi. I ended up taking one of each, then cursed myself. Food, Cole, my whole damn life. Apparently I was doomed to shoulder the curse of indecisiveness.

Great.

I moved toward a wall to get some breathing space away from the throng and tried to find Cole. It wasn’t hard. He’d moved away from the crush of bodies and now stood in an alcove beside a portly man with a ruddy, unattractive baby face. The man was talking animatedly, his skin becoming more splotchy by the moment and his hands fluttering as if in punctuation of his words.

Cole showed no reaction at all—which told me right there that he was pissed as hell and doing a damn fine job of holding it in. Cole’s temper was famous, and whoever this man was, he wasn’t scoring points by threatening to incite an explosion during the gala.

 I considered going over and interrupting—if nothing else that should distract Cole’s current nemesis. But fortunately, the gallery’s business manager, Liz, slipped up, offered the man a drink, and artfully led him away.

Cole watched them go, and I saw his fist clench at his side. I started to count, and when I got to ten, Cole pushed away from the wall. Anger management tricks, I knew, and he was putting them all to use.

I wondered what he was angry about. I didn’t, however, wonder enough to go ask him. No, I was much more selfish than that. I was still focused on my own problem with Cole—and it wasn’t his temper that I wanted to see explode.

I considered calling Flynn, my friend and roommate of the last few months. At best, he’d have a useful guy perspective on the whole mess. At worst, he’d offer a few soothing words. But I knew he was working tonight—if he wasn’t, he’d be at the gala. Flynn wasn’t one to miss a party. Especially not one that serves free alcohol.

Even a girl perspective would be good, but Angie and Evan had been double-booked tonight, and had already left to meet her parents for a wedding-planning dinner, and Tyler’s girlfriend, Sloane, hadn’t yet arrived.

I knew she was working late because last night over martinis she’d told me about the surveillance job she was on, but I’d thought she would be here by now. Selfish, maybe, but we’d become tight, and I wanted her around for moral support.

I glanced at my watch, then frowned. Then I told myself that it wasn’t fair to be annoyed when Sloane was off doing her job and had no clue that I was contemplating seduction and needed hand-holding.

Then—thankfully—the gal pal fairies took pity on me, because when I glanced toward the front of the gallery, I saw her pulling open the glass door and gliding over the threshold.

 Despite the late hour, the air was stifling from an unseasonably hot May. Even so, Sloane looked bright and fresh and pretty—like the girl next door who just happened to have the hard edge and cynicism of a former cop. I started to head that direction, then stopped when I saw Tyler approach her, his eyes bright with appreciation.

He pulled her close, and despite the room full of people, his welcoming kiss was long and lingering, and I swear I could see her glow from all the way across the room.

My stomach tightened in sudden, unexpected longing. I wanted to be that girl—precious in a man’s eyes. And with the power to bring him to his knees.

No. Not just any man. Cole.

I watched as Sloane brushed her hand possessively over Tyler’s arm, then whispered something to him. He laughed, then kissed her cheek. She moved away from him to enter the party, and he stood for a moment, his gaze lingering on her as he watched her go.

Since I was watching Tyler, I didn’t realize that Sloane had been coming my way until she eased up beside me. “Any news on the house?”

“We close next week,” I said. “I’m suffering from mild terror that it’s all going to get ripped out from under me. Like we’ll find out that something is horribly wrong with the foundation. Or the sellers will back out. Or the loan will fall through.”

The house had started as a whim. My natural state is to be in constant motion, everything from my habit of fidgeting to my general tendency to uproot myself every few years and move to a new city.

Over the last six years, though, I’d eased off that last trait. Instead of bouncing out of Chicago, I’d just bounced between apartments.

A few months ago, I decided that living in a house could be fun. I’d started out looking solely at rentals, but once I saw the tiny two bedroom frame house, I knew it was like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. All it needed was a little love. More important, I knew it had to be mine.

I hadn’t even realized I’d been contemplating ownership until I’d picked up the real estate agent’s flyer, but I was tired of feeling uprooted. I wanted to settle. I wanted . . . more.

And now I was on the verge of having it.

Honestly, I liked the way that felt.

 Sloane’s brow was furrowed as she pondered my words. “You’ve had the inspections, the tenants have already moved out and the sellers live—where? New Mexico, right? And I think you would have heard by now if there was something wrong with the loan.” She narrowed her eyes. “The employment stuff checked out okay, right?”

“Yeah, but talk about a snafu. The call must have come when Liz wasn’t here.” I’d hit Liz up before I told my little fib on the loan application, and she’d promised to back me if the underwriters called.

“Shit. What happened? Tyler didn’t say a thing to me.”

“Apparently Cole got the call.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, really? When?”

“It’s been over a week.”

“And he didn’t say anything?”

“Not until just a few minutes ago,” I said.

She held her hands out, gesturing for me to continue. “Hello? What did he say?”

“That I owed him,” I admitted.

Her laugh was filled with pure delight. “Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it?”

“Excuse me?”

“If he said you owed him, you just need to ask him how he wants to get paid.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “And what exactly are we talking about?”

“Oh, please, Kat. Don’t play coy. I’m a cop, remember? I know how to read people. And that goes for you, too, Katrina Laron, even though you think you’re impenetrable.”

I did think that, and it was a little disconcerting to know that I was wrong. This was why I’d spent most of my life avoiding making close friends. They got into the cracks of your life, knew you too well, and made you vulnerable. But Sloane was right—as a former cop, she was used to watching people and noting the details. More than that, it wasn’t that long ago that she’d been in a similar position, plotting out a way to seduce Tyler Sharp. Considering she and Tyler were now desperately in love and deliriously happy, I had to figure she understood the game.

She looked me up and down, the movement very deliberate. “Nice dress.” Her mouth curved in a wicked grin. “Seems like the kind of thing Cole would appreciate.”

“Bitch,” I said, but I was laughing.

“So other than the dress, what have you got in your repertoire?”

 “Isn’t that the question of the day? You’re right about the intentions,” I admitted. “But I’m doing a piss-poor job on the execution.” I ran my fingers through my hair, remembered the clip too late, and cursed.

I gave her the rundown of what had happened in the gallery while I freed my hair and fluffed it with my fingers. “But I’m not sure if he was really interested, or if it’s just me being hopeful.”

 “Please tell me you aren’t really that naive,” she said. “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 acknowledgement 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.

Chapter 3

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 mind-blowing, 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 one-sided. 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 high price 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 six-figure 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. 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.”

 

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