I get the clerk to call me a taxi, and once again I avoid home. Instead, I have the driver take me to the one place I have always gone when things go sideways for me in this city. The place where I would go to walk or sit or read on the weekends after my “sessions” with Bob, and where in high school I would go to escape the mean girl taunts. Where I sometimes even came just because I wanted to see something beautiful. The Getty Center.

The taxi drops me at the bottom of the hill and I get on the tram with a flood of tourists. I’m grateful it’s a Saturday. I want to be lost in the crowd, and camouflaged among the T-shirts, jeans, and ball caps that mark the out-of-town visitors.

The entire center is amazing, from the museum to the research facility to the tram that whisks people all around the complex. I have probably walked every square inch of this place at some point in my life.

Today, I choose the plaza and sit beside the fountain facing the rotunda.

I don’t think too much about why, but part of me knows that it is because the perfection and flow of this incredible building reminds me of Jackson. The center is a masterpiece of architectural beauty, a work of art in and of itself, and I am not sure if I came to bask or to torture myself.

I have no idea how long I sit there, the familiar numbness sliding back into my bones. All I know is that I’ve tuned out the world. And so when I hear him, it’s through a tunnel, and from a very long distance.

“Sylvia?” His fingertips brush my shoulder. “Sweetheart, I’m here.”

Jackson.

His voice, his touch, his scent.

I shift in my seat and look up at him. He looks raw and more ragged than I feel. I have at least showered. Jackson still wears the suit he’d put on last night, though his collar is now open and the tie has been shoved into a pocket where it peeks out in a small splash of red.

“I don’t want you here.” It’s a lie. It’s the absolute worst of lies, because I do want him. But not like this. Not with the games and the deceit and everything he kept hidden.

“What you think you know,” he says, “you don’t.”

“You fucking liar,” I say, my words low and measured. “I needed something real to hold on to, and you were an illusion the whole goddamn time.”

“Sylvia—”

“Was this always about Damien? About Stark International?”

He shakes his head. “Damien is the reason I said no to the Bahamas project. You’re the reason I said yes to Santa Cortez.”

I say nothing. Because what the hell is there for me to say?

“When this started,” he continues, “I wanted to hurt you. You’d left me. And to make it worse, I thought you’d gone to Damien. And so help me, I wanted payback. I wanted to make you weak. To make you wild. That first night? I planned to make you need me so badly that I was like air to you. So fucking essential that losing me would destroy you.”

I clench my jaw and hug myself, forcing myself not to spit out the acknowledgment that he has damn well achieved what he set out to do.

“And then, when I was your whole goddamn world, I was going to leave you. To have my revenge in the knowledge that you were burning in anger and loss.”

I lift my head so that I can see his eyes. I expect to see triumph. Instead, I see regret. I see tenderness, too, and because of that, I stay despite the almost overpowering urge to spring to my feet and run.

“But all of that changed, Sylvia. I would rather die than hurt you. I thought I was strong; I’m not. I thought I was brave; I’m not. Because where you are concerned, I have no strength to leave, and even the thought of losing you breaks me completely.”

“I guess you’re going to have to get used to it,” I say. “Because you’ve already lost me.”

“Sweetheart—” His hand closes over my wrist and I rip it away.

“You lied to me. After everything I’ve told you. After all of myself that I’ve given to you. You fucking lied to me.”

“I didn’t.”

I push up to my feet. “Oh, Christ, Jackson.”

“Listen to me. No,” he says, grabbing my hand as I start to walk away. “Listen.”

I turn to face him, but I don’t sit down. Instead, I stand with my arms crossed over my chest and my jaw tight.

He stands as well, then shoves his hands into his pockets. “I kept things from you, I did. Maybe more than I should.”

“Gee. You think? Like maybe you should have mentioned you were scheming with Jeremiah Stark?”

“I wasn’t. But I do know him. I’ve known him for a very long time.” He draws a breath and drags his fingers through his hair. “Dammit, Syl. Jeremiah Stark is my father.”


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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