He leans closer, placing one hand on the pillar just over my shoulder. He is at an angle, his face so close I can smell whiskey on his breath. “So what exactly do you want from me now?” He strokes his free hand down my bare arm until he reaches my hand. He twines his fingers with mine and pulls me hard against him.

I gasp and try to ease backward, but it’s not possible. He has moved his palm from the pillar to my lower back. He holds me close, so tight that I am breathless, lost in the feel of him and, yes, in the erotic sensation of his erection, unmistakable against my abdomen.

“Jackson—”

“Are you offering me a job?” he continues, ignoring my protest. “Are you offering to bring back everything you killed when you pushed me away?”

He releases my hand. “Or are you offering me this?” he asks, as he brushes his fingertip over my lower lip, so softly and gently that I have to fight not to gasp with pleasure. “Or maybe this?” he asks as his hand moves lower, his palm grazing over my breast.

My nipple tightens as my skin prickles with need. I have to focus on breathing, on not letting my knees give out.

Jackson takes no pity on me. Instead, he gently rubs circles on my breast, taunting and teasing even as his words continue to flow over me. “Surely you remember how it felt,” he presses. “You in my arms. Your release. That expression of ecstasy etched on your face. The surrender I felt in your body.”

“Don’t.” That single word is a cry. A plea.

“Don’t?” His hand slides down again, his fingers twining with mine once more. “But I have to. So tell me, Sylvia. Because I need to know. What exactly are you offering me?”

My eyes sting, and I squeeze them shut, wishing for the release of tears but they simply won’t come. “Just the job,” I finally say. I take a deep breath and open my eyes to face him. “Nothing has changed, Jackson. We can’t …” I shake my head, letting my words trail away.

He holds my gaze. The heat building in the space between us is so intense that I swear I can see the molecules spinning.

Slowly, he releases his grip on my hand. He steps back and I feel cold when he lifts his other hand from the small of my back. “You’re right,” he says. “We can’t.”

And that is it. Two little words, and then he turns away from me and walks down the hall. I stare after him, breathing hard, watching until he disappears into the shadows of the larger room.

He never once looks back.

four

The moment Jackson is out of sight, my legs give out. I sink to the ground, my skirt over my knees, my knees pulled to my chest. I hug them close, because I am shaking. Not tears, but the best I seem able to manage.

That is where I am when Cass finds me, my head down on my knees, my mind empty as I try to avoid my memories, this night, every goddamn thing.

“Jesus, Syl. What happened?”

I lift my head to find her crouching in front of me. The sun-streaked blonde is with her, standing a few steps behind and looking genuinely concerned. “How did you get back here?”

“Zee has after-party tickets. Someone saw you leave with Jackson, and when I couldn’t find you, we thought you must have come here with him.”

“I did,” I say, and hold out my hand so she can help me up. “Zee?”

“Zelda,” the blonde says. “My parents are F. Scott Fitzgerald fans. Are you okay?”

I shrug. “I’m not having the best night of my life.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, then glances quickly at Cass. “I am.”

That lifts my mood considerably, and I flash a quick grin at my friend, who has gone uncharacteristically pink in the cheeks.

“I’m guessing he said no,” Cass says.

“He said a lot of things,” I admit. “‘No’ was one of them.”

“Business thing,” Cass says to Zee. “Went south.”

“That sucks. Wanna hang with us?”

I’m tempted. At the moment, getting lost in drink and dance seems like a truly fine idea. But I don’t want to be a third wheel. Even more, I need to handle this. I need to think. I need to figure out a way to rewind this night, start over, and somehow get Jackson to agree.

“Thanks, but no.” I drag my fingers through my hair. “I’m just frustrated. But I’ll walk back into the party with you guys.”

“You’re staying?”

“Yeah. I think. I’m not sure. I need to talk to Jackson again. We didn’t exactly get off on the right foot this last go-round.”

Cass’s eyes narrow to slits.

“It’s fine,” I lie. “It’s going to be just fine.”


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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