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I sighed and fingered the charm on my silver bracelet. He'd presented me with the tiny motorcycle just over a month ago, and the gift had made me smile. I hadn't talked about wanting to ride a motorcycle since before I turned sixteen. And it had been years since I'd ridden behind a boy, my arms tight around his waist and my hair blowing in the wind.
But Uncle Jahn knew me better than anyone. He saw past the princess to the girl hidden inside. A girl who'd built up walls out of necessity, but still desperately wanted to break free. Who longed to slip on a pair of well-worn jeans, grab a battered leather jacket, and go a little wild.
Sometimes, she even did. And sometimes it didn't end right at all.
I tightened my grip on the charm as the memory of Jahn holding my hand-of him promising to keep my secrets-swept over me, finally bringing tears to my eyes. He should be beside me, dammit, and the swell of laughter and conversation that filled the room was making me a little sick.
Despite the fact that I knew Jahn wanted it this way, it was all I could do not to smack all the people who'd hugged me and murmured softly that he was in a better place and wasn't it wonderful that he'd lived such a full life. That was such bulls.h.i.t-he hadn't even turned sixty yet. Vibrant men in their fifties shouldn't drop dead from aneurysms, and there weren't enough pithy Hallmark quotes in the universe to make me think otherwise.
Antsy, I shifted my weight from foot to foot. There was a bar set up on the other side of the room, and I'd positioned myself as far away as physically possible because right then I wanted the burn of tequila. Wanted to let go, to explode through the numbness that clung to me like a coc.o.o.n. To run. To feel.
But that wasn't going to happen. No alcohol was pa.s.sing these lips tonight. I was Jahn's niece, after all, and that made me some kind of hostess-by-default, which meant I was stuck in the penthouse. Four thousand square feet, but I swear I could feel the art-covered walls pressing in around me.
I wanted to race up the spiral staircase to the rooftop patio, then leap over the balcony into the darkening sky. I wanted to take flight over Lake Michigan and the whole world. I wanted to break things and scream and rant and curse this d.a.m.ned universe that had taken away a good man.
s.h.i.t. I sucked in a breath and looked down at the exquisite ancient-looking notebook inside the gla.s.s-and-chrome display case I'd been leaning against. The leather-bound book was an exceptionally well-done copy of a recently discovered Da Vinci notebook. Dubbed the Creature Notebook, it had sixteen pages of animal studies and was open to the center, revealing a stunning sketch the young master had drawn-his study for the famous, but never located, dragon shield. Jahn had attempted to acquire the notebook, and I remember just how angry he'd been when he'd lost out to Victor Neely, another Chicago businessman, with a private collection that rivaled my uncle's.
At the time, I'd just started at Northwestern with a major in poli sci and a minor in art history. I'm not particularly talented, but I've sketched my whole life, and I've been fascinated with art-and in particular with Leonardo da Vinci-since my parents took me to my first museum at the age of three.
I thought the Creature Notebook was beyond cool, and I'd been irritated on Jahn's behalf when he not only lost out on it, but when the press had poured salt in the wound by prattling on about Neely's amazing new acquisition.
About a year later, Jahn showed me the facsimile, bright and shiny in the custom-made display case. As a general rule, my uncle never owned a copy. If he couldn't have the original-be it a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg or a Da Vinci-he simply moved on. When I'd asked why he'd made an exception for the Creature Notebook, he shrugged and told me that the images were at least as interesting as the provenance. "Besides, anyone who can successfully copy a Da Vinci has created a masterpiece himself."
Despite the fact that it wasn't authentic, the notebook was my favorite of Jahn's many ma.n.u.scripts and artifacts, and now, standing with my hands pressed to the gla.s.s, I felt as if he was, in some small way, beside me.
I drew in a breath, knowing I had to get my act together, if for no other reason than the more wrecked I looked, the more the guests would try to cheer me up. Not that I looked particularly wrecked. When you grow up as Angelina Hayden Raine, with a United States senator for a father and a mother who served on the board of over a dozen international nonprofit organizations, you learn the difference between a public and a private face very early on. Especially when you have your own secrets to keep.
"This is so G.o.dd.a.m.n f.u.c.ked up it makes me want to scream."
I felt a whisper of a smile touch my lips and turned around to find myself looking into Kat's bloodshot eyes.
"Oh, h.e.l.l, Angie," she said. "He shouldn't be dead."
"He'd be p.i.s.sed if he knew you'd been crying," I said, blinking away the last of my own tears.
I almost laughed. Katrina Laron had a talent for cutting straight through the bulls.h.i.t.
I'm not sure which one of us leaned in first, but we caught each other in a bone-crushing hug. With a sniffle, I finally pulled away. Perverse, maybe, but just knowing that someone else was acknowledging the utter horror of the situation made me feel infinitesimally better.
"Every time I turn a corner, I feel like I'm going to see him," I said. "I almost wish I'd stayed in my old place."
I'd moved in four months ago when Uncle Jahn's aneurysm was discovered. I'd taken time off from work-easy when you work for your uncle. For two weeks I'd played nurse after he came home from the hospital, and when he'd been given the all-clear by the doctors-yeah, like that was a good call-I'd accepted his invitation to move in permanently. Why not? The tiny apartment I'd shared with my lifelong friend, Flynn, wasn't exactly the lap of luxury. And although I loved Flynn, he wasn't the easiest person to cohabitate with. He knew me too well, and it always made me uneasy when people saw what I wanted to keep hidden.
Now, though, I craved both the coc.o.o.nlike comfort of my tiny room and Flynn's steady presence. As much as I loved the condo, without my uncle it was cold and hollow, and just being in it made me feel brittle. As if at any moment I would shatter into a million pieces.
Kat's eyes were warm and understanding. "I know. But he loved having you here. G.o.d knows why," she added with a quirky grin. "You're nothing but trouble."
I rolled my eyes. At twenty-seven, Katrina Laron was only four years older than me, but that didn't stop her from pulling the older-and-wiser card whenever she got the chance. The fact that we'd become friends under decidedly dodgy circ.u.mstances probably played a role, too.
She'd been working at one of the coffee shops in Evanston where I used to mainline caffeine during my first year at Northwestern. We'd chatted a couple of times in an "extra cream, please, it's been a b.i.t.c.h of a day" kind of way, but we were hardly on a first-name basis.
All that changed when we b.u.mped into each other on a day when extra cream wasn't going to cut it for me-not by a long shot. It was in the Michigan Avenue Neiman Marcus and I'd been surfing on adrenaline, using it to soothe the rough edges of a particularly c.r.a.ppy day. Specifically, I'd just succ.u.mbed to my personal demons and surrept.i.tiously dropped a pair of fifteen-dollar clearance earrings into my purse. But, apparently, not as surrept.i.tiously as I'd thought.
"Well, aren't you the stumbling amateur?" she'd whispered as she steered me toward women's shoes. "With a s.h.i.t technique like that, it's a wonder you haven't been arrested yet."
"Arrested!" I squeaked, as if that word would carry all the way to Washington and to my father's all-hearing ears. The fear of getting caught might be part of the excitement, but actually getting caught wasn't a good thing at all. "No, I didn't-I mean-"
She cut off my protests with a casual flip of her hand. "All I'm saying is, be smart. If you're going to take a risk, at least make it worth the trouble. Those earrings? Really not the bomb."
"It's not about the earrings," I'd snapped, then immediately cringed. The words had been a knee-jerk response, but they were also true. It wasn't about the earrings. It was about my dad, and the grad school lectures and the career-planning talks, and the never-spoken certainty that no matter what I did, my sister would have done it better.
It was about the oppressive, overwhelming weight of my life and my future that was bearing down on me, harder and harder until I was certain that if I didn't do something to break out a little I'd spontaneously combust.
Kat had glanced at my purse as if she could see through the soft Coach leather to the contraband inside. Then she slowly lifted her eyes back to my face. The silence hung between us for a full minute. She nodded. "Don't worry. I get it." She c.o.c.ked her head toward the exit. "Come on."
Relief flooded through me, and my limbs, which had frozen in both fear and mortification, began to thaw. She steered me to her car, a cherry-red Mustang that she drove at more or less the speed of light. She careened down Michigan Avenue, maneuvered her way onto Lake Sh.o.r.e Drive, and came so close to the other cars as she zipped in and out of traffic that I'm surprised her convertible didn't lose a layer of paint. In other words, it was freaking awesome. The top was down, the wind was whipping my hair into my face and mouth, and all I could do was tilt my head back and laugh.
Kat risked our lives long enough to shoot me one sideways glance. "Yeah," she said. "We're going to get along just fine."
From that moment on, I'd adored Kat. Now, with Jahn's death sending my universe reeling, I realized that I not only loved her-I relied on her.
"I'm really glad you're here," I said.
"Where else would I be?" She scanned the room. "Are your mom and dad around somewhere?"
"They couldn't make it. They're stuck overseas." The familiar numbness settled over me again as I remembered my mother's hysterical sobs and the deep well of sorrow that had filled my father's voice when he'd learned about his half-brother. "I hated calling them," I whispered. "It felt like Gracie all over again."
"I'm so sorry." Kat had never met my sister, but she'd heard the story. The public version, anyway, and I knew her sympathy was real.
I managed a wavering smile. "I know. That means a lot to me."
"The whole thing sucks," Kat said. "It's so unfair. Your uncle was too d.a.m.n cool to die."
"I guess the universe doesn't give a s.h.i.t about coolness."
"The universe can be a raving b.i.t.c.h sometimes," Kat said. She exhaled loudly. "Want me to crash here tonight so you won't be alone? We could stay up late getting so wasted that there's no way in h.e.l.l either one of us will dream."
"Thanks, but I think I'll be okay."
She eyed me uncertainly. She was one of the few people I'd confided in about my nightmares, and while I appreciated the sympathy, sometimes I wished I'd kept my mouth shut.
"Really," I said earnestly. "Kevin's here."
"Oh, yeah? And how's that going? Engaged yet?"
"Not quite," I said wryly. I supposed we were dating since I'd slept with him twice, but so far I'd dodged the let's-be-exclusive conversation. I wasn't sure why I was so reticent. The s.e.x wasn't mind-blowing, but it did the job. And I genuinely liked the guy. But I'd spent the last few months holding him at arm's length, telling him I needed to keep my attention on Jahn's surgery, then his recovery.
Obviously, I hadn't planned on Jahn's sudden death.
How horrible was it of me to think that now that Jahn was gone, I had no more excuses to hand Kevin?
Beside me, Kat craned her neck and scoped out the crowd. "So where is he?"
"He had to go take a call. Technically, he's working today."
"What are you going to do now?" Kat asked.
"About Kevin?" Honestly, I was hoping to avoid doing anything on that front for the foreseeable future.
"About your job," she countered. "About the roof over your head. About your life. Have you thought about what you're going to do?"
"Oh." My shoulders sagged. "No. Not really." My job in the PR department of Jahn's company might pay my bills, but it was hardly my life's ambition, and Kat was one of the few people to whom I'd confessed that deep, dark secret. Right then, however, that wasn't a conversation I wanted to have. Fortunately, something across the room had caught Kat's attention, effectively erasing my lack of direction and purpose from her mind.
She stood slightly straighter and the corners of her mouth tilted a bit, almost hinting at a smile. Curious, I turned to look in that direction, but saw nothing but suits and dresses and a sea of black. "What is it? Kevin?" I asked, praying he wasn't heading in our direction.
"Cole August," she said. "At least I thought I saw him."
"Oh." I licked my lips. My mouth had gone suddenly dry. "Is Evan with him?" I forced my voice to sound casual, but my pulse was racing. If Cole was around, it was always a good bet that Evan was, too.
Then I remembered what day it was and my pulse slowed as disappointment weighed down on me. "Isn't tonight the ribbon-cutting for the hospital wing Evan funded?"
Kat didn't even spare me a glance, her eyes still searching the crowd. "Not sure." She shot me a quick look. "Yeah, it is. You invited me before, you know, all of this happened."
I blinked back the sudden p.r.i.c.k of tears. "Evan's going to hate missing this. Jahn was like a dad to him."
Beside me, Kat took a quick step backward, startling me.
"What is it?"
She dragged her gaze away from the crowd, then frowned at me. "I ... Oh, s.h.i.t. I have to go make a call. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Um, okay." Who the h.e.l.l did she need to call right now? That wasn't a question I pondered for long, though, because I'd caught a glimpse of Cole. And right beside him-looking like he owned the world and everything in it-was Evan.
Immediately, my chest tightened and a current of electricity zinged across my skin. Technically, I saw him first, but it was my body's reaction that caught my attention. Only after I felt him did I truly see him.
And what a sight he was.
Whereas Cole might be s.e.x on wheels, Evan Black was the slow burn of sin and seduction-and tonight he was in rare form. He must have come straight from the hospital, because he was still in a tux, and although he was clearly overdressed, he appeared perfectly at ease. Whether in a tux or jeans, where Evan was concerned, it was the man that mattered, not the garment.
He had the kind of chiseled good looks that would have gotten him plucked from obscurity in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the kind of confidence and bearing that would have made him a box-office draw. A small scar intersected his left brow, giving the angel's face a hint of the devil.
He both came from money and had made his own fortune, and it showed in the way he held himself, the way he looked around a room, managing to take control of it with nothing more than a glance.
His eyes were as gray as a wolf's and his hair was the color of cherrywood, a deep brown that hinted at golds and reds when the light hit it just right. He wore it long in the back so that it brushed his collar, and the natural waves gave it the quality of a mane-which only enhanced the impression that there was a wildness clinging to the man.
Wild or not, I wanted to get close. I wanted to thrust my fingers into his hair and feel the locks on my skin. I imagined his hair was soft, but that's the only part of him that was. Everything else was edged with steel, the hard planes of his face and body hinting at a dangerous core beneath that beauty.
I didn't know whether the danger was real or an illusion. And right then, I didn't care.
I wanted the touch, the thrill.
That desperate need to fly I'd been feeling all night? So help me, I wanted to fly right into Evan's arms.
I needed the rush. I craved the thrill.
I wanted the man.
And it was just too d.a.m.n bad that he didn't want me, too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR.
J. KENNER is the New York Times bestselling author of Release Me, Claim Me, and Complete Me. She lives in Texas with her husband and daughters.
Visit her online at www.jkenner.com to learn more about her and her other pen names, to get a peek at what she's working on, and to connect through social media.