Re/Paired by Michele Zurlo

Chapter One

Shifting into fifth gear, Keith Rossetti lifted his foot from the clutch and punched the gas. He forced the speedometer to seventy before easing the pressure on the pedal. No law against getting to the top speed as quickly as possible. He was frustrated and pissed off at his best friend, and he had no other outlet for his aggression.

Sex might work, but his last submissive had flung his ropes at him, accused him of having a granite heart, and left. And she hadn't been the first one to do it, though most of them had let him down gently, not that he had cared one way or the other. While his heart wasn't stone, it didn't have many soft spots. He didn't need that kind of complication.

Three months ago, he'd made a call that netted a huge bust—they were still mining the data from it and finding a steady trail of evidence and some leads on other cases—but it had put his best friend's girl in danger. While the circumstances were regrettable, the woman had been an asset, and Malcolm wasn't supposed to fall in love. But he had, and only Keith's quick thinking had salvaged the operation. Darcy had been hurt in the melee, and Malcolm had blamed Keith. This was the first time since they’d met that Mal refused to speak to him. He didn't know how to fight to keep a relationship going. When a woman left him, he wished her well and walked her to the door. Now that he was inches from losing his closest friend, his lack of skill just added to his black mood.

He didn’t relish the coming barbeque. In fifteen minutes, he’d try to mend the fences, and Malcolm would give him the cold shoulder. They’d likely exchange a few pointed words, keeping it outwardly civil because Malcolm’s mother would take off her shoe and bash both of them upside their heads if they didn’t.

That was another part of this whole mess he hated. Coming from a family of functioning alcoholics who exchanged nothing but bitter retorts on those rare occasions they saw one another, he’d allowed himself to be adopted by the Legatos. Eleven years ago, he and Malcolm had been home on leave. His parents and two sisters had celebrated by drinking until they passed out, but they did that most nights, so he didn’t see a distinction. Of course, he'd traveled that path as well.

Malcolm’s parents had welcomed the boys home with a quiet dinner and honest conversation. Keith had liked not having to pretend he hadn’t been affected by his experiences in Iraq. When he had come home for good, the Legatos had opened their hearts to him, and he’d become one of them.

Except now that Malcolm wasn’t speaking to him, he didn’t know where that left him with regard to the rest of the family. Snorting, he told himself to man up. He wasn’t even there yet. Besides, Malcolm's mother had called the week before to extract a promise that he'd attend Layla's birthday party, so that had to mean she wasn't taking sides, right?

Not only that, but Kat would be there. He couldn't pass up an opportunity to see the woman whose face and body populated the landscape of his secret fantasies. It would never happen, of course, because he wouldn't allow their relationship to head down that slippery slope. He could handle breaking most hearts without feeling too much remorse. Hurting Kat would kill him.

He parked on the street a few houses down from Layla’s. Malcolm’s cousin always threw a huge bash in August to celebrate her birthday. He’d been coming to this annual shindig since before Layla had moved out of her parents’ house and got her own place.

He lifted the box from the passenger side floor and tucked it under his arm. Two cars passed by, and then he crossed the street. When he arrived at Layla’s driveway, he paused. Noises drifted from the backyard. Conversation cadences rose and fell. Laughter punctuated sentences. Water smacked against concrete, and a high-pitched shriek answered. Keith guessed at water balloons. Cargo shorts and a cotton shirt had been a good fashion call. Layla maintained that a party in August necessitated a beach theme.

“You’re tense. Either you haven’t gotten laid in a long time, or you’re afraid of something.”

Keith’s heart thumped a little harder, and he had to push it out of his throat before he could answer. Katrina, Malcolm’s little sister, always affected him like this. Logic dictated that if Malcolm and his brother MJ were like brothers to Keith, then Katrina should be like a sister. She wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Since the first time he set eyes on her eleven years ago, he’d struggled to keep his thoughts clean.

She threaded her arm through his and gave his bicep a hard squeeze. The side of her hot little breast pressed against him as she tightened her hold. “So, which is it? Are you sexually frustrated or a fraidy cat?”

A little of both. Keith sighed. He and Mal had never before had a disagreement that ran this deep. When Malcolm held a grudge, he held it long and hard. The son of a bitch had a stubborn streak that had served both of them well overseas and on many undercover assignments. Keith had one to match. He had no idea how things could ever be the same. He forced a short laugh. “Kitty Kat. Good to know all that lawyer training didn’t teach you to mince words.”

Her response should have been automatic. The opening he gave was supposed to initiate a scripted, harmless banter. Instead, she'd tensed up for a second, an indication of surprise. He realized he'd inadvertently used the term of endearment that he'd only used before in his fantasies. Fuck. It was good to know that when he most needed to be in control, he failed.

Luckily she recovered first. “In case your brain has been fried from spending too much time rotting in tricked out creeper vans, I was valedictorian of my class in law school. Give me a year, and I’ll be sitting first chair on your next big bust.”

He looked down at her, the first genuine smile of the day on his face. Her deep brown hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. Her dark chocolate eyes gazed at him somberly, belying the light tone in her voice. He could drown in her depths in so many ways. “You’ll be a federal judge before we know it, and I’ll be knocking on your door at two in the morning to get you to sign emergency warrants.”

She tilted her head and looked him up and down. Now that the semi-flirtatious, scripted part of their conversation had ended, there was no telling what she’d say next. “Darcy said she’d make Malcolm play nice. She’s on your side with this whole thing, you know.”

“Good to know.” He glanced up and down the street one more time. “I don’t see your car. Did you come with your parents?”

Kat grinned, hugged his arm closer, and batted her eyelashes outrageously. “Say you’ll be my hero and take me home later? I might kill my mom if I have to hear her gush over Malcolm and Darcy and the new-grandchild-to-be for another undiluted half hour.”

Be her hero. He wished for nothing more than to see her staring up at him with stars in her eyes—preferably on her knees and wearing only his collar around her sculpted neck. It would never happen, but he could dream. “Of course. You do know I won’t be staying long, don’t you?”

“That’s okay. We came early to help set up, so I've been here a long time. And you’re an hour late.” She tugged on his arm. “C’mon, Special Agent Rossetti. I’ll be your bodyguard.”

He snorted and shook his head, but he allowed her to lead him to the backyard. He’d taught her every defensive move she knew. “I’m the one who does the protecting.”

“Ooooh, I hit a nerve. He used the Dom voice. I’m quivering in my flip-flops.” She pressed a hand to her forehead and ruined the dramatic effect by laughing. The sound stirred in his chest pleasantly.

Kat often made fun of his dominant side, but she was the single female who regularly benefitted from his need to take care of a woman. Anything she wanted, day or night, whether or not she asked for it, he took care of it. He'd painted her apartment, fixed her plumbing, picked her up from a date that had gone sideways, and let her decorate most of his house. He'd remodeled his kitchen because she didn't like the way it was laid out, and he avoided yellow shirts and ties because she wasn't partial to the color.

Keith chose not to reply because he could only concentrate on the idea of her quivering. Plus, they’d made it to the backyard, which had been transformed into a beach paradise. Blow-up pools of all sizes and shapes were filled with ice. Some held drinks and food while others contained water and people. Colorful tropical flowers littered every surface, wound around table legs, and hung from the two canopies erected for shade.

Donna Legato, Kat’s mother, flew at him with arms wide open. She was a beautiful woman, every boy’s fantasy mom. Along with a strong sense of loyalty and a love of good food, she’d given her thick, dark hair and expressive eyes to each of her children. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

He smiled at the woman who had been a surrogate mother to him for the past eleven years. “Mama L, I gave you my word. Plus, I promised Kat I would give her a ride home.”

“It’s good to see you.” Mama L slung a couple of leis around his neck, slapped his cheek affectionately, and headed off to greet more people.

Kat looked up at him and batted her eyelashes. He knew she meant to mock him, but she came off as sultry. “Want me to hold your hand?”

In the worst way. Letting his better sense prevail, he shook his head and extracted the gift she’d been holding for him. “I’m fine. Malcolm can’t start anything if he won’t talk to me. Where is Layla keeping the presents?”

“What did you get her?”

Knowing full well his gift would be met with groans by everybody but Layla, he grinned. “The thing she asks for every year.”

Kat narrowed her eyes, years of experience giving her reason to distrust his grin. “Naked men won’t fit in that box.”

“The other thing.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “Water guns won’t win you points with anyone here. We only just got all the water balloons away from her. You might want to reconsider.”

Layla had a thing for water fights. She liked water balloons, hoses, and anything else that held water long enough for her to direct it at her target. Because she didn’t mind getting wet, meaningful retaliation proved difficult. Every year, a group of relatives took it upon themselves to search her house and remove temptation. Keith liked to fan the flames. This wasn’t the first time he had given her the latest in high-tech water guns, and it wouldn’t be the last.

He wiggled his eyebrow at Kat. “I have two more in my trunk.”

She shook her head in bemusement. Her eyes sparkled. “I think I’m glad you and Malcolm aren’t speaking. It’s never good for the rest of us when you two team up.”

Katrina wanted to be mad at Keith, but she couldn’t summon the ire. In the eleven years she’d known him, she’d never before been afraid that one day he’d vanish from their lives. His close friendship with her brother Malcolm had made him a member of the family. She hoped the rift between them wouldn’t make Keith drift away.

She watched as he made his way across the yard, stopping every few feet to exchange words with family and friends. Mentally she traced the outline of his broad shoulders and strong back. She spent some time admiring the way his loose cargo shorts draped over his ass so that sometimes she could make out the rounded muscles there, and sometimes she couldn’t.

Naughtiness and sin dripped from every facet of his body and made up the bad boy inherent in his handsome face. And it wasn’t fake. He looked like one of those men who dated a lot of women and left them hanging, and that was just how he behaved. Malcolm said Keith distrusted women in general and those who showed an interest in him specifically. While he didn’t seem as cynical about her or her family members, Katrina hadn’t tried to push for more. She dreamed about him, but she kept those wonderful fantasies to herself.

For the next half hour, she watched Keith and Malcolm dance around each other. Darcy, her brother’s fiancée, commandeered the seat in the shade next to Katrina. Though they were both about the same height, Darcy had curves Katrina’s slender frame would never possess.

She brushed her bangs away from her eyes and smiled at Katrina. “Trina, I’m at a loss as to how to get Malcolm to speak to Keith. I’ve asked nicely, and I’ve argued passionately. The most I could get from him was a promise to not say anything nasty.”

Katrina laughed. “That explains why Mal hasn’t said a word to Keith.”

“This isn’t his fault, you know. He was doing his job. He made sure the bad guy got caught. I know Malcolm was worried because I was in the middle of it all, but I’m fine. Why can’t he let it go?” She frowned at Katrina.

A brief glance at Darcy’s stomach revealed a gentle swell. She only recently had begun to show an outward sign of her pregnancy. “It’s that protective instinct. And you’re carrying his child, which just makes his need to keep you safe more acute.”

Darcy snorted. “It’s in the past. I’m safe. This makes no sense.”

That Darcy wasn’t a fragile woman who lacked confidence and a backbone had attracted Katrina’s older brother and made her instantly likeable to the rest of the family. “I don’t think Malcolm’s ever been that afraid before. Give it some time. I bet Keith will have him at least talking before the party’s over.”

“I hope you’re right. Your brother is one stubborn man.”

Katrina didn’t delve into the reason behind Darcy’s smile. She had no desire to know why her brother’s stubborn nature appealed to his fiancée. They chatted about other things while Layla opened presents.

She knew the moment Layla opened Keith’s gift. Her blonde curls bounced, and her pixie smile turned downright evil. She lifted the super-sized squirt gun from the box and aimed it at Malcolm. “I love that you fill these up before you wrap them.”

Malcolm held up his hand and put on his most forbidding expression. “That’s not from me, and you should never point a gun at someone you’re not planning to shoot.”

Layla stood up. “I know it’s not from you, and who says I’m not planning to shoot you?” She pulled the trigger as she said “shoot” and let loose a long stream of water that hit Malcolm squarely in the chest.

All hell broke loose. The hidden water balloons suddenly materialized, and more squirt guns appeared from nowhere. Well aware that hiding would prove useless, Katrina dived into the fight. Keith came through with a gun for her, so she was set offensively, but it also painted a big neon target on her body.

By the time things wound down a good hour later, Katrina’s light blue shirt, now transparent in some places, clung to her skin, and the denim of her jean shorts chafed uncomfortably. How had she rationalized not bringing a change of clothes? Oh yeah, she’d thought Keith wouldn’t want to piss off Malcolm even more.

She found Keith behind the garage. The massive water gun in his hand was raised next to his head, and he pressed his back to the siding as if he were on a raid. Katrina admired his profile for a moment before her discomfort took over. “Hey, half the people have left, and I’m soaked. Are you about ready to go?”

He turned his head at the sound of her voice. His gaze traveled over her body, assessing the damage in a way that made her feel deliciously naked. A flame flickered in the depths of his green eyes. He opened his mouth, but before he could answer, Malcolm charged around the corner and let loose with the full wrath of the garden hose.

Keith shoved her behind his body, which stemmed the worst of the flood, but Katrina was already soaked. His chivalry only mattered because she got to press her front against his back. His heat radiated through the wet fabric separating them, and her nipples pebbled in response.

“Take that, you arrogant son of a bitch!”

If Malcolm’s declaration shocked or upset Keith, he didn’t show it. “Takes one to know one.” He emptied his gun in four long streams, and then he dived for the hose in Malcolm’s hands.

They wrestled for control until the hose went slack, and then they just wrestled with each other. Darcy stood over them as they rolled on the ground in Layla’s muddy garden. Her yellow sundress molded to her curves. At least it wasn’t see-through. “Malcolm, do you want me to get your ropes from the car?”

Both men halted and appeared to consider the idea of ropes. Then Malcolm shook his head. “Those are for you, sweetheart. Keith’s more of a masochist.”

Keith punched Malcolm in the thigh hard enough to leave a bruise. Katrina sighed at their immaturity, but since Malcolm only pounded on Keith, it meant they’d made progress. They’d exchanged words and made physical contact. They were firmly on the road to mending the rift.

She stuck out a hand and helped Keith to his feet. Luckily he didn’t need to use much of the paltry leverage she provided. Cold muck squished between their hands. “Yuck. You’re covered in mud.”

He grinned. “Guess I’m driving home in my underwear.”

The image of him clad only in underwear—dark blue boxer briefs, according to her fantasy—as he navigated the roads to her condo caused her knees to shake. Katrina seriously wanted to lose her shorts too, but she wasn’t about to announce that fact. “I find it hard to believe that Agent Rossetti doesn’t have a change of clothes in his trunk.”

“Laundry day. I did think ahead, though. I brought a couple of towels.”

The towels saved his leather seats from the worst of their wetness. Keith had rinsed most of the mud away before getting into the car, but he was still sopping wet, and dirt streaked his clothes. To Katrina, he looked like disheveled heaven. His short, blondish-brown hair was darker in some places, and stray droplets of water glinted in the afternoon light. His sodden shirt delineated every inch of his chiseled physique. In one of the spare bedrooms in his house, he had some hardcore body-conditioning machines.

She wondered if he used any of them for bondage. Though she knew he had a dungeon in his basement, she’d never been inside that locked room, and she’d never broached the subject in a serious manner. Teasing and joking masked her curiosity. She hoped.

The ride from Layla’s place to Katrina’s condo took less than ten minutes. She shifted in her seat and regarded him with a long look. “It appears that Mal is talking to you again.”

Keith’s shoulder lifted and fell. “He’s not giving me the silent treatment, but he’s not going to ask me to come over tomorrow and watch some preseason Lions.”

Her heart went out to him at the vulnerability he tried to hide. She reached over and squeezed his wrist. “You can come watch it with me, but I doubt it’ll be the same.”

“Can we eat junk, yell at the TV, talk about sex, and scratch our balls?” He glanced over briefly, throwing a deviant smile in with the question.

“I don’t have balls, but if it’ll make you feel better, I could scratch my crotch.” She tried to match his smile, but the tingly sensation traveling up and down her spine made her nipples hard and distracted her from doing a good job. Scratching wouldn’t salve the itch she had for Keith. “I can even do you one better. I have NFL Network. I bet there’s a game on right now.”

He pulled into the visitor parking spot across from the carport where her car waited. “If you let me use your shower and loan me something masculine to wear while I throw my clothes in the washer, you got a deal. Oh, and I’m hungry.”

She laughed so suddenly that she snorted. “You’re so high maintenance.”

He pulled the towels from the seats and followed her around to the door that led to her condo. “I said I’d wash my clothes. I didn’t say you had to do it. And I’ll order pizza. You won’t have to make anything for me.”

“And I get the first shower.” She threw that caveat over her shoulder as she inserted the key to unlock her door. The bolt didn’t make a noise to indicate it had disengaged, so she turned the knob and pushed. It opened. “I swear I locked it. I always lock it.”

Keith held out his hand for the keys. “May I?”

The question was a formality. He used his Special Agent Voice and wore his Official Frown. Wordlessly she handed over the keys. He closed the door and turned the key to lock and unlock it several times. The frown didn’t go away.

“I’ll go in first. You stay out here.”

He disappeared inside. His demeanor scared Katrina more than anything else. Perhaps she had forgotten to lock it after all. She went through the same routine every time she left her house. It was conceivable that she only thought she’d locked it.

Keith appeared in the doorway. His frown had disappeared. “I want you to look around to make sure, but I think maybe you just forgot to lock up when you left.”

Her door opened to a landing. A set of stairs went up to her condo, and the other set, protected by a door, went down to the basement. She jiggled the handle to the basement door and found it locked. Heading up the stairs, she noted nothing different. In her condo, she found nothing out of place. Still, she shivered.

Keith put his arms around her and pulled her close, a concerned, brotherly gesture even though she wished it were more. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “I’ll stay the night if you want.”

Only if you sleep naked and in my bed.

“Thanks, but I think it was just a dumb move on my part. My parents were in a rush when they picked me up, but I can’t believe I forgot to lock the door. Next thing you know, I’ll be leaving the stove turned on or the water faucet running.” She shivered again. Though she wanted to stay in his arms, she forced herself to give up that warmth and comfort. “I’m going to jump in and do a quick rinse. Why don’t you order the pizza, and then you can take a shower. I have an old pair of M.J.’s sweats around here somewhere.”

__________

M.J.’s sweats hung low on his hips, though they weren’t meant to sag. Besides being too wide for his slim hips, the elastic in the waist was shot, and the cuffs didn’t quite make the trek to his ankles. The doorbell rang. He ran her comb through his short hair and exited the bathroom. The issue with her front door being unlocked had unleashed his protective nature. Kat wasn’t usually the kind of woman who forgot basic safety precautions, but his years of training and instinct screamed at him to let it go. She was currently juggling more than her share of cases while trying to distinguish herself enough for the higher-ups to take notice of her skills. People who were tired and overworked sometimes forgot to do habitual things.

Kat came up the stairs leading to the front door as he made it to the kitchen. She’d changed from wet shorts and a transparent tank top to light sweats and one of those T-shirts made for women that showed every curve. The scooped neck highlighted her pert breasts nicely. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and he could imagine just how perfectly her breasts would fit in his hands. And the things he wanted to do with her nipples right now—he could bind her arms behind her and torment those wondrous buds until she begged for release.

He swallowed and tamped down the desire tightening low in his abdomen.

She pursed her lips while looking him up and down. “Well, they definitely aren’t your sweats. Sorry. Both of my brothers are shorter than you.”

He grinned. At six feet even, Malcolm came the closest in height, but Keith still beat his buddy by two inches. “What? No ex-boyfriend gear?”

She set the pizza on the counter separating her tiny kitchen from the equally tiny dining area. “I throw out the gear with the guy. Want to grab a couple of plates?”

At home, he’d just toss the box on the coffee table, turn on the TV, and file slices directly into his mouth. Kat always insisted on plates, and she ate pizza with a fork. He liked those cute little lady touches, so he snagged two plates from the cupboard and handed one across the counter. Then he handed her a fork.

“Thanks.” She smiled, a genuine reaction that showed off the sparkle in her dark eyes.

Women showing honest emotion always threw him off for a second. He dated players and schemers because he knew how to handle them. Her smile was a gift and a reality check. A few months with him would wipe any traces of happiness and joy from her life. That reminder quelled his desire.

He piled four huge slices onto his plate and sank down into the soft cushions of her sofa. He’d spent more than one night crashed on the thing. The comfortable furniture felt and smelled like home. She took the seat next to him. Immediately, all residual tension left his body.

Vegging on the sofa with Kat wasn’t like sitting with any other woman. She didn’t demand conversation or attention. She didn’t flirt or make stupid comments that showed she was only watching football to humor his interest. She always cheered and yelled at the screen. She hated the Patriots and let everyone in the room know it. When a team ran a play well or when they screwed it up, she often came out with a comment that opened up a brief discussion of the action.

In short, watching football and sharing pizza with Kat wasn’t going to lead to anything else. Nothing he did with Kat was going to lead to anything else. Sure, he picked up on the little signs that showed she’d be amenable to something more happening. But after eleven years spent developing a friendship, he couldn’t jeopardize what they had to satisfy his selfish desires.

“I’ve decided I love the gift you got for Layla. I think that’s the best present you’ve given anyone ever.” She bit into her second slice. Cheese strings didn’t let her get away, so she wound them around her finger. It looked like she’d abandoned the fork.

“Wow. That’s quite a few superlatives. I didn’t know you wanted a squirt gun, or I would have got one for you.” He folded his third slice and took a hefty bite.

She wiped her fingers on a paper napkin and smiled at him. Humor glittered in her expression. “Oh, I don’t want a squirt gun. I meant it was perfect for her. You’re pretty good at figuring out gifts in general, but that was brilliant. It got Mal talking to you again, and it was a great way to end the party.”

Keith had always possessed a talent for picking out gifts. It wasn’t that he put extra time or thought into most of them. He just listened when people talked. They usually said what they wanted sooner or later. Most people preferred gifts that were favors. For Mama L’s birthday last April, he’d prepped her flower beds while she was at work. Though he’d promised most of Layla’s friends and family that he would stop buying water-fight-related gifts, he knew how much she liked them. That trumped any other obligation.

“So what’s your favorite thing that I got for you?” He probably shouldn’t have asked such a loaded question, but he was curious to hear her response. He put more time into considering gifts for her than for anyone else.

She slid her gaze away, looked at her half-eaten slice, and then back at the TV. The Ravens had humiliated the Chiefs so badly that watching the game had become painful. When she thought deeply, she scrunched her eyebrows together the tiniest bit. Just now, nothing was scrunched. That worried him.

“Avoidance behavior.” Goading her often worked.

She cleared her throat. “The necklace you gave me three years ago for my birthday. I wear it all the time.”

The silver dragonfly pendant had diamond and emerald chips. Buying jewelry for women wasn’t something he did often, but when he’d seen it, he had known it was the perfect gift. Though her birthday hadn’t been imminent, he had purchased it right away and held on to it for seven months. When she’d opened it, the expression on her face had been a priceless reward. He knew she loved it, but he also knew she was lying.

He leaned forward and put his plate on the table. “That’s not what you were going to say.”

“But it’s what I said.” She picked up both dishes and headed to the kitchen.

Keith wasn’t quite finished with his, and she always asked before she took something that wasn’t empty. Her behavior confirmed his instinct. She was hiding something. The part of him that needed to be in control wouldn’t let her have this secret, no matter what his better sense said.

He followed her into the kitchen. “Kat, the question shouldn’t be so hard to answer.”

She set his plate on the island. “Are you not finished with that?”

He took the remaining dish from her and set it down. Then he rested his palms on the counter on either side of her body, effectively caging her. He’d never used his physicality to bully her before, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from doing it now. The sweet scent of her skin and the spiciness of the pizza drew him to her. The upper swell of her breasts strained against the tight fabric of her shirt, and her nipples hardened to points. She dropped her gaze, a subconscious and completely real act of submission.

Leaning down, he captured her attention. Her breath caught. She wet her lips, and his cock noticed the delicate way her tongue darted out.

What in the world had he given her that would make her react like this? Both his curiosity and his libido were piqued. One of them demanded an outlet. Unfortunately, it was the one he couldn’t assuage, not without losing everything.

“Kat, what was the first thing that popped into your head?”

She fidgeted, wringing her hands before she seemed to realize what she was doing. As a newer attorney, she had less experience with behaviors and tells than he did. She put her hands behind her, groping for the counter, but she came into contact with his wrists. Immediately, she folded her arms over her chest, hiding her vulnerabilities. “Keith, don’t.”

He leaned closer, and her breath hitched. Her gaze flickered from his eyes to his lips and stayed there. Ions bounced between them. He really needed to back off, but a perverse streak of self-destructiveness asserted itself. “Don’t what?”

She closed her eyes and exhaled a short stream of air. “Do you remember what you gave me for my eighteenth birthday?”

Hell, yes. The memory of that kiss haunted him to this day. Her lips had tasted sweet, and that had nothing to do with the cherry lip gloss she had been wearing. It hadn’t been a deep kiss or a long kiss, and it had nearly knocked him on his ass. But maybe she meant the other gift, the one she had been able to open in front of everyone. The one he hadn’t made her swear to secrecy.

He had to ask. “The shirt or the kiss?”

She opened her eyes, but she didn’t meet his gaze. She looked at some point over his shoulder. “The kiss.”

“That was your favorite gift?” The part of him that chose collars that would look good around her neck while she lay naked on his bed was absurdly pleased. He ignored the warning bells in his head. Messing with Kat could mean losing the family who had adopted him and saved what was left of his worthless soul.

She shrugged. It wasn’t flirty or shy. It was the kind of shrug that communicated uncertainty and discomfort. “It was and it wasn’t.”

He’d backed her into a corner. If she had been his, he would torment her until she explained. But she wasn’t his. She was so much more than something he could possess. He dropped his arms and stepped back far enough to give her space, but close enough that she wouldn’t think he was ending the conversation. “Care to explain that?”

Now that he wasn’t so close, she relaxed a bit. Her shoulders moved. She drummed her nails against the countertop. “I was… I mean… It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was the best kiss. I’ve spent the last ten years comparing every first kiss to that one, and they all fall short. But I don’t know if that’s because it was really so good or because I’ve idealized it in my head. You kinda ruined other men for me.”

What the hell was wrong with her? She should have come up with another explanation, something plausible that didn’t make him stare at her in shock. Why did she have to be honest with him? Just because she’d never lied to him in the past didn’t mean she had to always tell the truth, especially not when the only thing that would come from this was more awkward silence.

He massaged his jaw and regarded her somberly. She couldn’t think of anything to say to mitigate the damage. Give her an hour or two without him around, and her brain might remember how to process rational thoughts again.

“Do you want another one?”

Yes, she wanted to kiss him again. No, she didn’t want his pity. She shook her head and turned away.

His arm came up, and he rested his hand on the counter, blocking her escape route. She could turn around and go the other way, but if she did that, things would never be normal between them again. No, she needed to face this head-on, downplay the significance of what happened so they could both ignore the topic for another decade. Because if she knew anything about him, it was that he didn’t want the same things from a relationship she wanted. He wanted a few nights of companionship where he controlled every aspect.

She wanted a real relationship. The submissive side of her nature clamored for his domination. Though she’d played some games with lovers over the years, she knew there was a huge difference between the slap-and-tickle quality of those interactions and what Keith did. Keith was the real deal. It wasn’t a game to him, and she didn’t have the experience to know exactly what that entailed.

“To see if the memory is as good as the real thing.” He’d lowered his head so that when he spoke, his breath whispered across the place where her neck met her shoulder. “I never meant to ruin anything for you.”

She turned to face him, and he backed up to give her space. He’d never behaved like this around her. All those times she’d thought she had caught flickers of lust, desire, or interest in his eyes had resulted in nothing. “So this is a friend thing? A favor?”

Something flashed behind his eyes. His devious smile had long since vanished. “Sure.”

Favor or not, she wanted this. Only a fool would turn him down.

“Okay.”

He cupped her face in one hand and ran the pad of his thumb over her lower lip. He hadn’t done that before, and the move all but guaranteed the impending kiss would rock her world. She felt like groaning, but she lacked the ability to make sounds.

He leaned closer. His lips brushed against hers, the bottom one moving sinfully slow. He spread his fingers and slid them through her hair so that he controlled her head with his palm. She couldn’t move unless he allowed it. Tension stiffened her spine, and she became hyperaware of the proximity of his body to hers. She longed to close the distance, but she was terrified he’d break off the kiss if she was too forward.

He teased his tongue along the seam of her lips, and she parted them, granting entry. The warmth of his palm penetrated her sweatpants where he gripped her hip. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. With her knees about to buckle, she grabbed for his chest. She met with a solid wall of hot flesh. How had she forgotten he wasn’t wearing a shirt?

Her touch seemed to give him permission. He moved the hand he’d parked on her hip and banded his arm around her waist to hold her close. Their thighs molded together, and her breasts pressed against his chest. So many sensations rioted in her body.

The masterful way he controlled the kiss canceled her ability to think. She became a creature of response, grasping at his chest and shoulders in search of an anchor. A frantic noise escaped her throat, a sound that was a cross between a growl and a whimper.

He tightened a fist in her hair and tilted her head back, breaking the kiss violently. She gasped, gulping at air because she’d forgotten how to breathe. Heat smoldered in her core, and he wasn’t finished. He trailed firm kisses along her jaw, nipping her skin every few inches. The sharp little bites both stung and sent her nerve endings into overdrive. Mindlessly, she dug her fingernails into his shoulders.

The savage kisses didn’t stop there. He licked the column of her throat and sank his teeth into the muscle running along the top ridge of her shoulder. She yelped, not because it hurt, but because it felt so damn good. Sensations she’d never experienced ran unchecked through her body.

He jerked away, ripping from her grip in a manner that left scratches down his shoulders and across his arms. Turning his back to her, he pressed his palms against the counter that divided the small kitchen from the tiny dining area. His shoulders heaved as he took deep breaths.

Every muscle in her body trembled in the aftermath of his onslaught. Was that what she’d missed out on all these years? Sure, she’d dabbled in bondage and played spanking games, but she’d never let a man take control of her body and soul the way Keith had just done. If a kiss made her feel this way, what would be left of her after a scene?

Suddenly she needed more. She’d always wanted Keith, but she’d held her emotions in check, instinctively understanding that he didn’t have anything more to give. The plea tumbled out, surprising her with its desperate quality.

“Train me.”

His entire body tensed, not that he’d been the portrait of the relaxed man a moment ago. “You don’t know what you’re asking.” He didn’t turn around to look at her as he dismissed her request.

“I do too know what I’m asking.” Then she realized her mistake. Submissives didn’t demand. They asked. They begged. At least she’d done that last part right. And they knelt, naked, at their Master’s feet.

Keith whirled on her, controlled fury glittering from his emerald eyes. Unnerved by an expression she’d never seen on him, Katrina trembled even more.

If she knew anything about Keith, she knew better than to show weakness at a moment like this. He was the ultimate predator, and he regarded her as prey. Rivulets of pleasure ran across her belly. The raw air of danger seeping from his pores excited her like nothing else. She wanted to be naked and kneeling at his feet. She wanted him to show her what it felt like to belong to him.

Moving slowly, she lifted the hem of her shirt.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Taking off my clothes.” She would prove to him that she was serious. “I’m not ignorant, just not trained. You want me to get on my knees and ask properly, right?”

He gripped her hand hard, halting her attempt to undress and hurting her a little. It must have shown on her face because he eased up on the pressure. “Kat, I don’t want you to ask at all. I didn’t mean to kiss you like that.”

Which either supported her point or should hurt really, really badly. He had been overcome with passion, just like she had been. Was it a momentary thing, or did he still feel the pull of passion unsated? She put her other hand over his, holding it lightly. “But you did.”

A shadow of pain passed behind his eyes, a haunted look she’d seen before. “You’re not cut out for that kind of life. You’re too…” He shook his head, a short movement she barely detected.

When he didn’t continue, she tried to force the issue. She wouldn’t her drop it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. “Don’t you dare call me delicate. I want this. I want to learn about this side of myself.”

He took his hand away and leaned down so that his face was the only thing she could see. Though she could read the desperation in his eyes, he spoke through clenched teeth. “I spank my submissives whenever the whim strikes me. They’re mine to use however and whenever I want. I make them kneel at my feet and crawl naked across the room. I tie them up and flog them. I hurt them because I get off on their pain. I torture them sexually. Sometimes I tie them up and don’t touch them at all. I make them do anything I want, just because I can, and I get off on the power I have over them. You’re too good for that.”

Standing over her, he was the very essence of intimidation. He might scare anyone else with his growled warning, but not her. She knew him too well to think he would ever hurt her in a way she didn’t want to be hurt. Nobody had flogged her before, and she was sure nobody had spanked her the way he would, but nothing he said sounded horrible to her. She’d never fantasized about crawling, but she had considered the other things. It was difficult to imagine submission when she didn’t know what it really felt like, what it would really be like.

She lifted a hand and caressed his smooth cheek. “This is what I want, and I trust you.”

When he closed his eyes and seemed to luxuriate in her affection, she thought she had him. But then he gently removed her hand from his cheek and dropped it between them. “I know you do. That’s why I’m telling you no. I thought the kiss would fail, that it would help you get over me.”

The shaking in her knees had its root in her humiliation. “But you felt it too.” And now she sounded like a petulant child. Rejection sat heavy on her chest.

“I’m sorry. I really am. But you’re one of the few people I care about. You would learn to hate me.” Misery etched lines around his mouth. “I just can’t take the chance I’d lose your friendship.”

This was difficult, as painful for him to say as it was for her to hear. She realized that now. She realized she’d stepped over a boundary he’d put in place long ago, and she knew how much he needed those impenetrable lines.

“I’m sorry.” And she was. Sorry she’d asked. Sorry he’d refused. “I shouldn’t have asked you. Can we forget about it?”

He nodded. “I’m sorry too, Kat.”