The words cut through me, hot and horrible. They’re my words, the ones I said to him so many years ago. And for over an hour they fill my head as I shower and redo my makeup in the women’s locker room.

When I can’t use that as an excuse for hiding anymore, I go up to my desk on twenty-seven and try to get some work done on the resort, hoping that poring over details will leave no room for my thoughts of Jackson.

But considering the project for the day is dealing with the FAA about the small landing strip, my mood has not improved much by the time I push my work aside so that I can walk down the hill to the offices of Bender, Twain & McGuire, where Cass is meeting Ollie for her franchise planning meeting.

I’ve been to this office dozens of times with Damien, so I’m not surprised when Cyndee, the receptionist, tells me to just go on back to the small conference room. The blinds are closed, and I feel a stab of guilt as I realize that I’m running five minutes late, and the meeting has started without me.

I tap on the door, then let myself in, my apology dying on my lips when I see Jackson sitting next to Cass.

Across the table from them, Ollie looks up. “Sylvia, we’re just getting started. Help yourself to a cookie,” he adds, pointing to the familiar tray of cookies and Danish, which is my favorite part of coming to meetings at this office. The snacks are awesome.

I grab an oatmeal-raisin cookie and take the seat next to Cass so that she is a buffer between Jackson and me. I feel his eyes on me, but I don’t look his way. I can’t look at him and be certain that I can keep my shit together. And this meeting is too important to Cass to allow my personal problems to mess with my head or her deal.

Despite her nerves and her fears, the questions that Cass fires at Ollie are good ones. I’m impressed with Ollie, too. I’ve never worked directly with him, but I do know that he was in the litigation department for a while, and I’d been a little concerned that he wasn’t going to be up to speed on the ins and outs of franchising. But he knows his stuff, and he not only runs Cass through all the moving parts that need to happen to get her set up, but he’s also incredibly patient with her questions and doesn’t fall back into legalese.

Jackson’s no doormat, either, and he interjects a number of points to clarify what Ollie has said or to ask for further explanation. He’s so helpful, that despite my still raw nerves, I’m grateful that he’s come.

“So I’ve given you a lot to consider,” Ollie says as the meeting draws to a close. “Your homework is to think about bringing in investors. It will reduce your risk substantially, but also reduces your overall equity position. It all boils down to risk and reward. And control,” he adds. “Right now, you’re the only face of Totally Tattoo, and you have been for a while. Think about whether that’s something you’re willing to give up.”

“I will,” she promises.

We say our goodbyes, then head for the lobby while Ollie goes in the opposite direction to his office.

“Thanks so much for coming, you guys,” Cass says, giving me a hug. Then she turns to Jackson and gives him a hug as well. “You’re as awesome as Syl said you were.”

“Am I?” Jackson says, looking over her head to me.

I bite my lip, realizing that this is the first time they’ve actually met. And also realizing that I haven’t yet had the chance to bring Cass up to speed on the most recent drama.

“Zee was totally irritated that I couldn’t meet her right after work, so I’m going to go try to catch up with her for drinks. You guys want to come?”

I shake my head. “I’m meeting Wyatt for a photography session. And I need to run home and change and get my camera first.” I’d thought about canceling when Nikki left a voice mail, excited to learn that Damien was taking her to New York tonight. But the truth is, I haven’t spent enough time behind the lens lately. And right now I’m messed up enough that the idea of forgetting everything else except form and light and composition is pretty damned appealing.

“Have fun,” Cass says. She gestures to the elevator. “Y’all going down?”

I start to say yes, but Jackson touches my elbow. “Go ahead,” he says. “I want Sylvia to myself for a minute.”

Cass grins. “Of course you do.” She nods toward the reception desk, where Cyndee talks on her headset to a caller. “Just be discreet.”

She winks, then pushes through the door to the elevator bank.

“Thanks,” I say when she’s gone. “It was nice of you to come.”

“I told you I would.”

Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance