“Sylvia,” he calls, and I stumble to my feet and reach out for the valet. “Dammit, Sylvia, stop!”

“Leave her alone!” Cass cries, and I look over my shoulder to see her tugging on Jackson’s sleeve. “Dammit, Jackson, just let her go.”

I clutch the valet’s hand. “Please. I need a taxi.”

“Of course.” The boy looks about seventeen and completely freaked out. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”

“Just the taxi. Please. Hurry.”

There is one already in the pickup line, and he hurries me in. I collapse gratefully into the backseat, and as the car leaves the curved driveway for the street, the last thing I see before I fall inside myself is Jackson standing beside Cass, his body angled as if in motion, held in place only by her firm grip on his arm.

I sink back into the seat and try to decide where to go from here. Not home. Jackson will look for me there.

Not to the office, because I will be found.

In the end, I go to a motel. A boring little chain that charges way too much for its boring little rooms.

But I don’t care about the money or the decor. I don’t even care about the bed, because I do not intend to sleep.

I can’t, not tonight. Because tonight will be the worst.

Tonight, the nightmares will come, dark dragons with sharp teeth and fiery claws.

They will come and I’ll see Bob in my mind—Cabot Reed—and he’ll touch me and seduce me and I’ll come for him, and I’ll hate myself.

Then I’ll look him in the eyes and see Jackson, and hate myself that much more.

I’ll be helpless.

Lost and alone, with no one to slay the dragon.

A burst of fury whips through me and I grab the ice bucket off the dresser and hurl it across the room. It makes an unsatisfying thud against the thin drywall and cheap paint.

“Goddamn you, Jackson Steele,” I shout. “God fucking damn you.”

He’d lied to me, by omission if not outright. Acted like he didn’t even know Jeremiah Stark when I asked him about it after the LA Scandal website fiasco. And maybe I could believe that tonight was just one of those first-meet coincidences if I hadn’t seen his face and overheard their conversation. But I had, and Jackson’s is a face I know—they’ve known each other for a long time. And they are obviously more than just casual acquaintances.

God, how could I have been so stupid? I put my trust—all of my trust—in that man.

And so help me, I actually believed I was falling in love with him.

No. Damn me, I did fall in love with him, and that’s why this hurts so much.

I love him, or at least I loved the man I thought I knew.

And now, somehow, I have to manage to survive losing him all over again. Because I know now that the man I have fallen in love with is not the man who exists.

“Shit.”

The word sounds hollow, and I grab my phone to dial Cass, then end the call before it connects. It’s not her company I crave, but the ink.

Except how would I mark myself? What I feel is too big, too personal. Too damn much. And unless she can rip my body open and tattoo my heart, I don’t think there is any mark she could put on me that would help even out the pain that I’m feeling.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I throw myself on the bed and I squeeze my eyes shut and will myself to cry. And yet still the tears won’t come.

I can’t even have that small relief to ease my pain.

Instead, I lay in the bed, lethargic and numb, and watch television as I fight the sleep that is determined to drag me under. Infomercials. Sitcoms. Bad animation.

Hour after hour until the dark, grimy window turns light.

Then I stumble from the room, my skin tight and my eyes grainy, and walk to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast of cold pastries and lukewarm coffee.

I sit at the cheap plastic table and sip coffee for over an hour. There is a newspaper at the place setting across from me, but I do not read it. There is a television playing one of LA’s inane morning programs, but I do not watch it. I just sit and stare and slide into myself, losing myself in my head in a way I haven’t done since Jackson laid out his proposition at the premiere.

Since then, I haven’t wanted to fade away.

Now, I can’t think of anything I want more.

Unless it’s to have back the Jackson I thought I knew.

God, I’m being maudlin.

Disgusted with myself, I shove to my feet. If I’m going to be depressed—and I think I have every right to be—I’m going somewhere more pleasant than this ugly motel lobby.

I go ahead and shower in my room, then change into a pair of sweatpants and a City of Angels T-shirt. I’d bought both from the small gift and snack area behind the reception counter. Not overly fashionable, but it blends better than my cocktail dress.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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