“What do you know about these?”

I tell him, giving him the details that he already knows. How the Santa Fe getaway for a well-known philanthropist finally earned him the recognition he deserved and jump-started his architectural career. How the opera house thrust him into the design-build arena when he branched out from strict design work to the full spectrum of property development. And how the Winn Building was a major victory for Steele Development, as it marked his company’s foray into the lucrative New York market, and resulted in the first project in which he retained an ownership interest.

I don’t mention the murder and suicide that took place at the Santa Fe house not long after it was completed. It doesn’t seem relevant and, frankly, I’m afraid that kind of gossip might spoil whatever progress we’re making.

Nor do I mention that the rental income from the Winn Building must have at least quadrupled Jackson’s net worth overnight. But we both know that I am aware. You can’t work for a man like Damien Stark for all these years and not gain some understanding of the monetary potential for the kind of projects Jackson now commands.

In other words, Jackson doesn’t need the income from The Resort at Cortez. And considering how fast his star is ascending with the documentary and the possibility of a feature film, he doesn’t even need the publicity.

All I have to offer is the challenge. I can only hope that will be enough.

I turn so that I am facing him, my back now to the pillar. “So? How did I do?”

“Not bad. You’ve been watching my career.”

“No,” I say, the lie coming easily. “But I’m good at my job. And that means I know who I’m recruiting.”

“Recruiting,” he repeats. He takes a single step toward me.

“Yes.” The word is firm, and I am proud of how steady I feel.

He steps closer, reducing the distance between us to mere inches. I tilt my head back. Even with me in heels, he is a head taller than me, and right now I cannot help but feel small. Vulnerable.

I push that down, though, and meet his eyes, hoping mine show ice and determination.

“Do you remember Atlanta?”

His words are like a slap, and despite all my resolve, I step backward, only to be foiled by the pillar behind me. “I—of course I do.” I lick my lips. “Jackson, I’m sorry about the past. But this isn’t—”

“No,” he says, holding up a finger to silence me. “Do you remember before? Before you tore it all apart. Do you remember the way it felt when I touched you?”

My throat has gone completely dry, and I can feel small beads of sweat at the nape of my neck. “Jackson. Don’t.”

He steps closer, ignoring me. “Tell me, Sylvia. And be honest, because I swear I’ll know if you’re lying.” His voice is low, seductive, and utterly commanding. “Do you remember?”

I shake my head, but that isn’t enough to push away the truth. Of course I remember. I remember every laugh, every touch, every breath. I remember every word of every conversation, the taste of every meal. I remember the glorious sensation of his hands upon me and his cock inside me.

But I also remember when the panic set in. When I started to drown, and no matter how hard I fought to keep afloat I kept getting pulled down into the swirling waters of cold fear and harsh memories.

I’d ended it because I had to. Because the only way I could survive was to destroy everything. Because the only way I could breathe was to push him away.

For that matter, I’m having a little trouble breathing right now.

His fingertip hooks under my chin and he tilts my head up so that I am staring deep into his eyes. “Do you remember?” he repeats.

I say nothing.

“And at the end,” he persists. “Do you remember what you asked me in Atlanta?”

I lick my dry lips, then nod.

“Tell me.”

Whatever you need, baby, I promise. You only have to ask.

Jackson, I—I need you to leave me. I need you to walk away and to never look back.

The memory pounds like red neon inside my head.

“Tell me,” he repeats.

“I asked you to leave.” I say the words simply, as if every syllable isn’t ripping me to shreds.

“And did I?” His voice is still even, still calm, but there is no hiding the tension that backs each and every word. “Did I not do exactly what you asked? Did I not walk away even though it just about killed me?”

It killed me, too. I want to shout the words at him, but I don’t. I can’t, because that would only make him suffer more, and after everything I’ve done to him, I can’t add that burden. So all I do is nod. “Yes.” My voice sounds lost. Hollow. “You did.”

Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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