Say My Name by J. Kenner will be available April 7th.
READ CH. 1 – http://bit.ly/Ch1SayMyName
Get to know Jackson Steele – HERE
New York Times bestselling author J. Kenner kicks off a smoking hot, emotionally compelling new trilogy that returns to the world of her beloved Stark novels: Release Me, Claim Me, and Complete Me. Say My Name features Jackson Steele, a strong-willed man who goes after what he wants, and Sylvia Brooks, a disciplined woman who’s hard to get—and exactly who Jackson needs.
I never let anyone get too close—but he’s the only man who’s ever made me feel alive.
Meeting Jackson Steele was a shock to my senses. Confident and commanding, he could take charge of any room . . . or any woman. And Jackson wanted me. The mere sight of him took my breath away, and his touch made me break all my rules.
Our bond was immediate, our passion untamed. I wanted to surrender completely to his kiss, but I couldn’t risk his knowing the truth about my past. Yet Jackson carried secrets too, and in our desire we found our escape, pushing our boundaries as far as they could go.
Learning to trust is never easy. In my mind, I knew I should run. But in my heart, I never felt a fire this strong—and it could either save me or scorch me forever.
Say My Name is intended for mature audiences.
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READ CH. 1 – http://bit.ly/Ch1SayMyName
Get to know Jackson Steele – HERE
“Whatever time he has available today,” I say, holding my phone tight to my left ear and my hand tight over my right. Even so, it’s hard to hear Jackson’s New York based secretary over the noise of the helicopter powering down.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Brooks. Mr. Steele’s documentary is screening in Los Angeles this evening, so I’m afraid every minute is booked.”
I’m on the roof of Stark Tower in downtown, and despite the sensation of literally being on top of the world, I do not feel composed or in control. I want to pull open the door to enter the elevator alcove, but I know from experience that I run the risk of losing my cell signal, and I have a feeling that if I let this woman get off the phone I won’t ever get her back.
So I stand in the wind with the sun burning down on me and the asphalt all around me, feeling decidedly at the mercy of not only the elements, but of Jackson Steele, his secretary, and even the damned cellular provider.
“How about tomorrow?” I ask. “I realize that’s Saturday, but if he’s not going right back to New York—“
“Mr. Steele will be staying in Los Angeles for at least a week.”
“Perfect,” I say, going limp with relief. “When would be convenient?”
“Just a moment, please. I’ll see if I can reach him on his cell.”
I stand there, feeling a little foolish, as the peppy hold music plays. When the phone clicks, signaling that the woman has returned to the line, I straighten my back and shoulders as if springing to attention, then roll my eyes at my own ridiculous behavior.
“I’m afraid there is no convenient time, Ms. Brooks.”
“Oh, no, really. I’m happy to make myself available anytime. And if it’s more convenient I’ll go to his hotel or he can come to my office. Whatever works.”
I hear her sigh, long and deep, and I bite my lower lip as she says, “No, Ms. Brooks, you misunderstand. Mr. Steele has asked that I decline your request for a meeting. And to express his regrets, of course.”
“He said that you would understand. He said that you two discussed this already. In Atlanta.”
“I’m terribly sorry if you’re disappointed, Ms. Brooks. But I can assure you that Mr. Steele’s refusal is final.”
My mouth has gone completely dry. Not that it matters. I may want to argue, but it is too late. The line has gone dead.
I stare at my phone for a moment, not quite believing what I’ve just heard.
Jackson said no.
“Shit.” I run my fingers through my hair, then look up at Clark, who has secured the helicopter and is heading my direction.
“Trouble?” he asks, his brow furrowed as he peers at my face.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I say. Because there is no way I’m calling Damien and telling him that I blew it so badly I couldn’t even get a meeting. Which means that I very badly need a Plan B. Another starchitect. A magic potion. A goddamn freaking miracle.
I start to follow Clark into the alcove, then stop short, remembering. “Have a good weekend,” I say to him. “I need to make one more call.”
And then I scroll through my contacts, find Wyatt’s number, and call the photographer to see if he can wrangle that miracle.
“You do know how awesome this is, right?” Cass asks as she climbs into the limo and takes a seat opposite me.
She looks amazing as usual in a slinky black dress slit so far up her thigh it’s a wonder she didn’t flash the neighborhood. The dress is held up by a single, simple bow over her left shoulder, and she fills it out with the kind of curves I can only dream about. Her hair is red this week, and she is wearing it up so as to accentuate the dress. Other than a small diamond stud in her nose, she wears no jewelry, which makes the tattoo of an exotic bird on her shoulder, its tail feathers trailing down her arm in an explosion of color, all the more stunning.
As soon as she’s settled, Edward shuts the door and returns to the driver’s seat. We don’t see him, as we are snug behind the privacy screen, but I feel the motion as the limo pulls away from the curb in front of Cass’ tiny house in Venice Beach.
“Seriously, Syl. Your job perks rock.”
“Definitely on the upside of awesome,” I agree as I pass her a glass of wine. The limo is one of the Stark International fleet, and Edward is Damien’s personal driver, on loan to me for this evening. With any luck, I’ll make this worth Edward’s overtime.
“I think we both need a moment of deep contemplation,” Cass says. “You, in appreciation of the serious perks of your job. And me, in gratitude that you are so anti-social that there’s no one else you want to invite tonight.”
“Bitch,” I say, but I’m laughing as she closes her eyes and tilts her head back.
“Ommm,” she says, as if she’s in a yoga class and not in the back of a stretch limo on her way to a Hollywood release party.
I’d debated whether or not to bring her, but in the end had decided that not only would Cass get a kick out of a red carpet premier, but she’d also make a damn fine human security blanket.
Cass has been my best friend since I snuck into her dad’s tattoo parlor at the ripe old age of sixteen. He’d sent me packing, telling me in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to lose his license so some Brentwood brat could get a tat in order to piss off mommy and daddy.
I hadn’t cried—I hadn’t cried since I was fourteen—but I had felt my face go hot as my temper and frustration rose. I’d called him a bastard, yelled that he didn’t know a thing about my parents and he sure as hell didn’t know anything about me. I don’t actually remember calling him a fucking prick, but Cass assures me that I did.
What I do remember is storming out, then running blindly until I reached the beach. I’d rushed across the bike path, almost knocking over a toddler, and then tripped in the sand. I’d fallen face down and just laid there like an idiot, my forehead on my arm and my eyes squeezed together because I wanted to cry—so help me, I wanted the tears to flow—but they didn’t. They couldn’t.
I don’t know how long I’d laid there, breathing shallow so I wouldn’t suck up the sand. All I know is that she was there when I looked up, all long legs and tanned skin and short black hair slicked into dozens of spikes. She crouched on her haunches, her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hand as she stared at me. Just rocked back and forth and stared.
“Go away,” I’d said.
“It’s not his fault. My mom bailed, and he’s gotta take care of me, so it’s not his fault. I mean, if they yank his license, they’ll close his shop and then they’ll repossess the house and we’ll end up living in the back of his Buick, and I’ll have to turn tricks in Hollywood just to keep us in Snickers and Diet Coke.”
My gut clenched at her words, and for a second I thought I would be sick. “Don’t,” I said. “That’s not even funny.”
Her eyes narrowed as she studied me, then she stood up, as gangly as a colt. She held out her hand to help me up. “He can’t do it, but I can.”
“You want a tat, I can give you a tat.” She shrugged, as if tattooing someone was the kind of thing every teenage girl knew how to do.
“Suit yourself.” She started to walk away.
I pushed myself up so that I was kneeling in the sand and watched her leave, never once looking back to see if I’d changed my mind.
I had. “Wait!”
She stopped. A moment passed, then another, then she turned. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Sixteen. How old are you?”
“I just turned fifteen. You can really do it?”
She came toward me, then stuck her leg out so that there was no missing the black rose on her ankle. “I can do it.”
“Will it hurt?”
She snorted. “Duh, yeah. But not any more than it would if he did it.”
I assume she was right about that, but I’ll never know for sure. Because Cass is the only one who has ever given me a tattoo, and she’s given me several. That first day we’d hung out on the beach until her dad had locked the shop. Then we’d snuck back in, and she’d adorned my pubic bone with a beautiful golden lock, sealed tight and bound with chains.
She asked me why I wanted that design, and I hadn’t told her. Not then. And even later, I didn’t tell her everything. Just the surface, but not the deep down truth. And even though she’s my best friend, I don’t think I ever will.
That tat—and the ones that followed—are for me alone. They are secrets and triumphs, weakness and strength. They are a map, and they are memories.
Most of all, they are mine.
“So who’s going to be there?” Cass asks after a while. “There’s a red carpet, right?”
“That’s what I hear. But don’t get too excited. It’s a documentary, not a blockbuster. I’m guessing a few studio execs, some agents, maybe a few C-listers.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that we’re gonna walk down a red fucking carpet. I guess I can knock that one off my bucket list.”
“I guess you can. The dress rocks, by the way. Where did you get it?”
“That Goodwill near Beverly Hills. It’s my favorite hunting ground.” Cass owns Totally Tattoo now and makes a good living, but it wasn’t always that way, and I don’t think I’ve ever once seen her buy retail.
“Usually I only score a ten dollar pair of Seven for All Mankind jeans and some kickass Tees,” she continues. “But this time there was an entire rack of evening clothes. I swear, I don’t get those women. Wear it once and then donate it.” She shrugs philosophically. “But whatever. I’m happy to take advantage of their economic idiocy.”
“And look incredibly hot in your frugality.”
“Damn skippy. You look pretty amazing yourself,” she adds.
“I should. I spent two hours getting a trim and having my make-up done.” I’ve worn my hair short since I was sixteen. That’s when I cut off my long, loose waves in favor of a cut that’s a cross between a pixie and a bob. At the time, all I’d wanted was a change, and as dramatic a one as I thought I could get away with. Since shaving my head was a bit too radical even for my mood, I’d dialed it back.
Now, though, I genuinely like the cut. According to Kelly, the girl who does my hair, it suits my oval-shaped face and highlights my cheekbones. Honestly, I don’t care about the reason. I just want to like what I see in the mirror.
“The red tips are especially awesome,” Cass says.
“I know, right? Isn’t it fun?” My hair is dark brown with natural golden highlights. Frankly, I like it that way, so I’ve never been tempted to follow Cass’ lead and dye my hair temporarily pink or purple or even just plain red.
Tonight, however, I thought I’d have a little fun, and I’d asked Kelly to see about giving me some colored highlights. She went a step further, focusing on the tips of a few chunks of hair in a way that seems not only fun but elegant.
“It’s awesome, yes, but what I meant was that the color matches your dress. Which is fabulous, by the way.”
“It should be. It cost a freaking fortune.”
I may not spend my life trolling consignment stores like Cass, but I rarely spend as much on a dress as I did on this one. It’s fire engine red, and though I decided to go with cocktail length, I think it’s as elegant and sexy as Cass’ floor-skimming evening gown. And, yes, as I did a turn in front of the dressing room mirror, I’d tried to see myself through Jackson’s eyes. Not because I wanted to look hot—or, not entirely—but because I wanted to look successful. Competent.
“It works?” I ask Cass. “Not too slutty? Or worse, too corporate?”
“It’s perfect. You look like a confident, professional businesswoman. And clearly you took my advice and invested in a padded push-up bra, because you even have cleavage.”
“Bitch,” I say, but with the utmost affection. I’ve got an athletic build, slim and lean. Which is great when it comes to finding clothes, but not so great when I’m trying to fill out a dress.
I expect her to shoot me a snarky comeback, but instead there is only silence. “What?” I demand, when I can’t take it any longer.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
It is the gentleness in her voice that cuts through me. Cass is loud and boisterous, and I am used to that. Softness from her can break me.
I nod. “I’ve put my heart and soul into this project. I’m not going to let it die if I can save it.”
“Even if saving it hurts you?”
I force myself not to wince. “It won’t.”
“Dammit, Syl, it already has. Do you think I don’t get it? There is no one who knows you better than I do, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who inked your back when you got back to LA from Atlanta. I know how wrecked you were, and I swear to God, if you hadn’t been pumped up about the job with Stark you would have just crumbled into dust and blown away.”
“Don’t what? Don’t worry about you?”
“It was five years ago. I put it behind me.”
“And now it’s back in front of you.”
“No,” I say, and then stop, because she is right. “Okay, maybe. Yes. Guilty as charged. I’m walking into the lion’s den. Pouring the gasoline and striking the match. Jumping off the cliff. Pick your metaphor, because it doesn’t matter. I have to do this.”
“Are you really asking me that?”
Her shoulders droop. “No. I get it. I’ve watched you work this project. I know how much it means to you. It’s like me and the studio. I loved working for my dad, but it’s better now that the place is totally mine. I feel, I don’t know, grown up. Complete.”
“Yeah. It’s like that.”
“It’s just that he already said no, right? He told Stark, and then he refused to even take a meeting with you. So do you really believe you can change his mind?”
“I have to believe it,” I say. “Right now, unsupported optimism is all I’ve got going for me.”
“Oh, man. Don’t say that.”
I lean forward so I can take her hand. “I can do this. And I’ll be fine. Really. I’m not as fragile as I used to be. I can do this,” I repeat, as much to convince her as myself.
“Fuck yeah, you can,” she says, though the words are belied by a weak smile.
“Come on,” I urge. “How can I fail when I look this hot?”
That gets a laugh. “You’ve got a point,” she admits. “I mean, right now you look good enough to eat. And, hell, I can remember when you schlepped around looking so ratty that not even a dog would want to give you a lick.”
“No kidding, right?” I’d spent my last years of high school trying very hard to be invisible. It was Cass who’d slapped some sense into me the summer before I started college at UCLA.
It’s a day I remember with crystal clarity. It was a Tuesday, and we’d decided to go check out the campus that would soon become my home. A couple of upperclassmen had given us both the once over, and my immediate reaction had been to hunch my shoulders and cross my arms over my chest.
“Are you a fucking moron?” she’d asked in that gentle Cassidy way that she has.
“Oh, come on, Syl. You need to stop this. You’re totally hot and you hide it under ugly sweatshirts and baggy jeans. And the hair—“
“I am not growing out my hair.”
“Have ya considered maybe, I don’t know, combing it?”
I’d shoved my hands into the pockets of my baggy jeans and stared at the sidewalk.
“Look,” she’d said more gently. “I get it. I do. You wanna get all comfy on my shrink couch and I’ll tell you exactly what is going on in that head of yours.”
“I didn’t finally tell you about what happened so you could pick me apart,” I’d snapped.
“Guess what? I don’t care. Because you are my best friend and I love you and you are handing that asshole power on a silver fucking platter.”
“I’m not handing him anything,” I’d said. “He is gone. Long gone.” And thank god for that.
“The hell he is. He’s the reason you walk around looking like you’re trying to get typecast as Dumpy Female Neighbor. Maybe you haven’t seen the prick since you were fourteen, but he is with you every fucking day.”
I’d clenched my hands into fists as my temper rose. “Do not even think about going there,” I’d said, lifting my head and taking a step toward her.
“I’m already there.” Cassidy is only about three inches taller than me, but she’s always been larger than life, and I’d been overwhelmed by her shadow. And that had just made me angrier. I was hurting. I was lost. And even my best friend wasn’t backing me.
“Just. Fucking. Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” she’d asked. “Don’t tell you the truth? Don’t try to beat through that thick head of yours how absurd this is? Some pervert photographer preys on you because you were young and pretty, and so now you’re still trying everything in your power to disappear? Fuck that shit. You were fourteen—fourteen. He was the asshole.”
I’d shaken my head slowly, my eyes burning even though no tears came. I’d wanted to run, but it was Cass I always ran to, which meant there was nowhere left to go. “I should never have told you.”
The truth is I hadn’t told her all of it—not even close. But I’d told her enough.
“Dammit, Syl,” she’d said, and there’d been tears streaming down her face. “Don’t you get it? Some fucked up a-hole took your virginity. He took sex. But he didn’t take you. You’re smart and you’re beautiful, and he can’t touch that shit. You need to own it. Because every time you hide behind some bullshit like this,” she’d said, plucking at my ugly gray sweatshirt, “you’re letting him win. You want your life back, you take it back. And you look damn hot doing it.”
Now, as I sit in my sexy red cocktail dress in the back of the limo, the memory of that day is still crystal-clear. I can still feel the way my stomach twisted when she’d talked about what Bob did to me during those months when I was fourteen. More than that, though, I remember how warm and safe I’d felt just knowing that I’d had a friend who really cared.
“Thanks,” I say softly.
She tilts her head, obviously not following my train of thought. “For what?”
“For this,” I say, plucking at the dress. “If you hadn’t bitched me out all those years ago, I’d probably be wearing sweatpants tonight.”
“Not if you’re going with me,” she retorts, and we both laugh.
“Look, Syl,” she says after a moment, “I just don’t want you getting all twisted up again. You never really told me what happened with Steele, but I know you well enough to know you’re kinda screwed up where guys and relationships are concerned.”
“Understatement of the century,” I agree. I don’t need a shrink to know I still have issues.
“Have you even slept with a guy since Atlanta?”
I tense. “I’ve been focusing on work,” I say, my words crisper than I intend. “It’s not like my job is nine-to-five.”
She holds up her hands in surrender. “Hey, I get it. I do. And it’s not like I’m saying you should go back to the way you were before Steele, either.”
I cringe, because the truth is I’d fucked a lot of guys in college. Not because I wanted them, or even because I wanted to get off. No, I was using sex as therapy, proving over and over that despite everything I knew about myself, I could keep my feelings and reactions and emotions in a nice, tight little box. That I could win over the memories and fight the nightmares. That I could keep control.
Cass knows more about that time in my life than anybody. And she also knows that it isn’t a time I want to talk about. “Don’t do this, Cass. Don’t fuck with my head tonight. Please.”
“I’m sorry. I am. But tonight’s the whole point. You’re still raw.”
I shake my head automatically, wanting to deny even though she’s right. “I haven’t had a nightmare since I moved back to LA.”
“And that’s great. That’s my point. And I don’t want you to get hurt now. Again. You’ve already gone through too much.”
“I won’t,” I say, though the promise is hollow. “I love you, you know.”
Humor flashes in her green eyes as her mouth quirks into a half-smile. “Yeah, but will you get naked with me?”
“After all the time I took to get dressed?” I quip. Considering I really am screwed up where guys and relationships are concerned, I sometimes wish I could go there. But that’s not me. And though we’ve had our awkward moments, for the most part, the crush she’s never bothered to hide is just one more dynamic between us.
She grins wickedly, then glances at her watch. “We’ve still got a couple of minutes before we get to the theater. We could drop the privacy screen. Give Edward a little show.” She purses her lips, then manages a boob-shaking shimmy.
I laugh out loud. “That is wrong on so many levels.”
“Honestly, what’s the point of going to a Hollywood shindig if sex and alcohol aren’t part of the mix?”
“We have alcohol,” I remind her, as I refill her wine glass. “As for the sex, I’m sure there will be plenty of prospects.”
“From the C-list,” she reminds me.
I consider a moment. “Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Graham Elliott shows up.” Elliott is Hollywood’s latest mega-star. “Apparently he’s gunning to play Steele in a feature film that’s in the works, and he’s A-list all the way.”
“Not exactly my type, but that means Kirstie Ellen Todd is probably coming, too, right?”
“I doubt it. I saw online that they broke up.”
Cass makes a face, then sighs. “Well, at least I’ve got a shot at her again.”
“One, I’m pretty sure she’s straight. And two, there’s the small problem of the fact that you’ll never in a million years meet her.”
“Minor inconveniences, all.”
I shake my head, amused. “Confidence, thy name is Cassidy.”
“Damn straight. Oh, wow, check it out.” She slams back her wine, then uses the empty glass as a pointer. “Spotlights.”
She’s right. Twin searchlights are doing the criss-cross in the sky routine right in front of the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is now the TLC Chinese Theater. When I was growing up, it was Mann’s Chinese Theater, and so mostly I just think of it as the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with the hand and footprints of so many movie and television stars.
Edward slides the limo into line, and we creep forward slowly until the rear door is even with the red carpet. The limo stops, the door opens, and Cass and I emerge to the flash and buzz of reporters. It slows down as soon as they realize that we aren’t celebrities, though I think that Cass’ killer legs probably kept them snapping a bit longer than they otherwise might.
In front of us, red velvet ropes separate the theater and its forecourt from the spectators who have gathered along the Walk of Stars that adorns this section of Hollywood Boulevard.
Cass squeezes my hand as we start to walk the red carpet toward the iconic pagoda-style entrance to the famous theater. “This is completely iced.”
I really can’t argue, and as we follow the path over the forecourt filled with the hand and footprints of television and movie stars, I feel a bit like a celebrity myself. That fantasy is only accentuated as I glance around at the tuxedoed men and well-coiffed women who mingle in this open area, chatting with the press and giving tourists and celebrity watchers a chance to snap dozens and dozens of photos.
Wyatt waits at the end, and as Cass and I approach, he grins. I expect to pass by and join the mingling guests, but he ushers me in front of a banner advertising the studio that financed the documentary, and proceeds to do the full-on Red Carpet Photo Moment.
“Thanks for wrangling the extra tickets for me,” I say. “I owe you big.”
“No problem,” Wyatt says as he aims his camera at Cass. “Just another manifestation of my subversive, artistic personality. I’m all wacky that way,” he adds, making me laugh.
Cass and I link arms and follow the well-dressed crowd. We go first toward Grauman’s Ballroom in the adjacent multiplex where the VIP reception is being held prior to the screening in the original theater. I lean toward Cass. “Definitely iced,” I say, repeating her word. And I mean it. Right then, I feel pumped up, confident, and ready to conquer the world. Or, at least, to conquer Jackson Steele.
Uniformed staff stands at the door, offering us flutes of champagne as we enter the ballroom. “Wow,” Cass says, and I silently echo the sentiment.
The room is stunning. Huge, but not overwhelming. Golden light fills the space, but is broken up by a pattern of geometric blue images projected onto the floor and ceiling. A few corners of the balcony are highlighted in red, giving the room a festive, nightclub atmosphere. Two massive columns seem to stand guard over the space, and between them, a crowd gathers around a circular bar, the stacked wineglasses twinkling like colored stars in the clever lighting.
Behind the bar, a screen displays a montage of photographs—soaring skyscrapers, angular office buildings, innovative housing complexes. I recognize each as a Jackson Steele project, and those images are interspersed with sketches, blueprints, and construction shots of the Amsterdam museum that is as much the focus of the documentary as the man himself.
Cass drains her flute of champagne and makes a beeline for the bar. “I need a refill and you need liquid courage,” she says.
“I do not,” I lie, but she orders a glass of cabernet for both of us anyway.
I take it, ignoring the voice of reason that tells me that I shouldn’t be even slightly tipsy around Jackson Steele. That if I am going to get through this, I need to be clear headed, professional, and ice, ice cold. Smart words, and I shoot them all to hell when I lift my glass and down a long, slow sip.
“To kicking butt and taking names,” Cass says, as she holds her glass out in a toast. I clink mine against hers, then take another smaller sip. What had she said? Liquid courage? Yeah, maybe that was a good thing after all.
I glance around, scoping out the area and searching the faces. The room is comfortably elegant, with linen-covered tables mixed in with plush couches and designer chairs. Most are empty, as the guests are standing to mingle and work the room. I recognize a few of them. A reality TV star in the corner, an agent I met once at a party. I don’t see Jackson, though, and I’m starting to get antsy. He must be here somewhere, and I’m afraid if I don’t find him before the screening, that he’ll be whisked away to some after-party before I have the chance to talk with him.
“What’s he look like?”
“You don’t know?”
She shrugs. “You didn’t tell me until today that your Atlanta fling grew up to be a hot shit celebrity architect. Hot shit and just plain hot, right?”
“That’s about the sum of it.” I stumble for a moment—because how do you describe perfection—and then I stop, because he is right in front of me. Not the man, but his image, projected on the screen behind the bar for all the world to see.
“Whoa,” Cass says as she follows my gaze. “Shit, fuck. Seriously? That guy is positively gorgeous.”
I nod, my eyes glued to the screen, my throat thick. I’d thought that the magazine cover did him justice, but I was wrong. On the cover, he is brushed and polished, his rough edges smoothed away by the magic of Photoshop. But this—this is raw and grainy. It’s candid and stunning and awe-inspiring.
It’s Jackson, standing astride two parallel iron girders at least thirty stories above a city I don’t recognize. He’s wearing jeans, a long-sleeve white T-shirt, and a white hardhat. He is holding onto a giant hook suspended in front of him, and seems unaware of the camera that I can only assume is taking this shot through a long lens from a safe distance.
The shadow of beard stubble is as unmistakable as the brilliant blue of his eyes, which seem to burn in the white light of the sun. His free hand rests against his forehead like a visor, blocking the sun as he surveys the structure rising all around him. Behind and beneath him, the city spreads out, but it is Jackson who is the focal point. And from this single image, there is no question that Jackson is a man with the power to grab hold of the earth and remake it as he wants it. And in that moment, I can only hope that what I can offer is something that he wants to claim.
I hug myself, then step back as the image fades and is replaced by another building site. I turn and find Cass staring at me. She sighs, then shakes her head slowly. “Christ, Syl. I can see it on your face.”
I look away, but she grabs my arm.
“This job isn’t worth it. He’s going to rip you to pieces all over again. He half has already.”
“No.” I take a deep breath. “No, he won’t—he hasn’t. And he didn’t rip me to pieces in the first place. I did that all by myself. All he did was—“
“All he did was what I asked him to.” And with any luck, he would do exactly that again.
“Fine. Okay. But are you sure you don’t want a wingman? At the very least I can hang with you until you find him.”
“No. I’m good. Go mingle. Who knows. Maybe Kirstie Ellen Todd really is here.”
She hesitates, then nods. “I’ll tell her you said hi.” She gives me a quick hug, then slides up to the bar again for another glass of wine. I do the opposite and set my half-full glass on a passing waiter’s tray. Definitely better to be clear-headed.
After fifteen minutes, though, I’m regretting my forced sobriety. I’ve circled the room twice and seen dozens of almost famous actors and well over a hundred other faces that aren’t familiar at all. I’ve seen Cass chatting up pretty much everybody, a waitress I recognize from my favorite restaurant who tells me she’s moonlighting, and Wyatt circulating through it all with his camera and flash.
But I haven’t seen Jackson.
He must be here, though, so I decide that the best approach is to go up to the second level, park myself along the balcony, and scan the guests from above. I’m heading that direction, my head slightly down as I’m taking a second to check my office email and messages on my phone, when I catch a glimpse of something familiar in my peripheral vision.
I look up, ignoring the sudden tightness in my chest, and search the surrounding faces for him. Except he’s not there, and now my chest tightens even more, this time with disappointment.
I take another step as I slide my phone back into my tiny red purse.
And that’s when I see him.
He descending the stairs, his attention focused on the distinguished looking man beside him. He is clean-shaven and elegant in a collarless black jacket over a white cotton pullover. I had expected a tux, but can’t deny that this is a much better choice. He looks dark and sexy and unpredictable. More, he looks important. The kind of man who can say ‘fuck you’ to convention, and have everyone scrambling to keep up with him.
This is the man who lives in my memories. Those crystalline blue eyes. That wide, gorgeous mouth. The thick brows and sculpted features.
He descends two more steps, then turns slightly away from his companion. As he does, I realize that he isn’t entirely as I remember him. Now there is a scar that intersects his left eyebrow, then arcs across his forehead to his hairline. It wasn’t there in Atlanta, but it’s well-healed, and must be several years old.
The scar does nothing to mar the sensuality of this man who so undeniably commands the room. Instead, that single flaw adds to his mystique, giving him a dangerous and mysterious edge. Even so, I know that there must be pain beneath it, and my fingers itch to touch it, to trace the path of it. To hold and soothe and comfort against whatever evil had the gumption to scar that incredible face.
But that is no longer my right, and that reality is pounded home as I glance around and realize that every woman in the vicinity is looking at him, just as I am. I close my hand into a fist, feeling suddenly proprietary, even though I have no claim on this man anymore. I gave that up. Sacrificed him to save myself.
A wave of melancholy crashes over me, and I tell myself to stop it, stop it, stop it.
I did the right thing, I am certain of it. And it doesn’t matter anyway. The past is over, goddammit. I need to just suck it up and move on, just like I’ve been doing for my whole screwed up life.
I take a deep breath, then another, as I force myself to get my shit together. I’m a businesswoman with a lucrative proposition. I’m not a starry-eyed girl getting weak-kneed around the ultra-sexy man of the hour.
I can do this. I can approach him, greet him, tell him that I’m not going to accept a brush off. That it’s been five years, we’re both grown-ups, and he’s just going to have to listen to me.
Straightforward. Direct. To the point.
Right. I can manage. No problem at all.
I take a step toward him, then another.
I straighten my shoulders and put on the professional smile that I have honed over five years of working for the CEO of Stark International.
I keep my eyes on Jackson as I move toward the staircase, taking a path designed to intercept him as he reaches the ballroom floor.
He doesn’t see me—he is completely focused on the man beside him. I cannot hear their conversation, but Jackson’s hands move as he talks, and I know that they are discussing architecture. I smile with affection, remembering the way he would outline a skyscraper in the air and the way his fingers would dance as he considered facades and footprints, purpose and plan.
His companion says something, and Jackson laughs, his wide, sensual mouth curving into a smile that freezes in place as he casually scans the crowd—and then finds me.
A wild heat burns across his expression, but is banked so quickly that I almost think I imagined it. Now when I look, I see only a blank stoicism. And yet there remains an intensity to him, the illusion of motion even though he has stopped dead still on the staircase.
His eyes are locked on mine, and I stand motionless as well, unable to move. Almost unable to breathe.
“Jackson,” I say, but I am not sure if I have spoken aloud or if his name has simply filled me, as essential as oxygen.
We hold like that, time ticking by, the world around us frozen. Neither of us move, and yet I feel as though I am spinning through space and hurtling toward him. The illusion terrifies me, because right then I know two things—I want desperately to be in his arms again, and I am absolutely terrified of the collision.
And then, suddenly, the world clicks back into motion. His eyes hold mine for a split second longer, and in those few brief moments before he turns away, I see the flash of cold, hard anger. But there’s something else, too. Something that looks like regret thawing under the ice.
I realize that my limbs will function again, and take a step toward him, knowing that this is my chance. For the project—and for something deeper that I do not want to think about because opening that door scares me too much.
But it doesn’t matter. Not my fear, not the project.
Because Jackson doesn’t look at me again.
Instead, he strides right by me, never looking back, never even slowing. And I am left to watch him pass, as anonymous as all the other women who stand there and look after him with longing.
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