“Fuck you, Jackson,” I snap, as much in anger as in confusion. “Fuck you and your grudge and your goddamn ultimatum.” I snatch my phone off the table and bolt for the door, the world around me spinning in shades of red and gray.

I grab on to the frame, my back to him, then take a deep breath to steady myself. “I never meant to hurt you,” I say, so softly I’m not even certain he can hear me.

“Maybe not,” he says, his voice equally soft. “But you did. And now if you want me on this project, you’re going to have to pay the price.”

five

Bastard.

He’s a goddamn bastard on wheels and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him use me like that.

I hurry down the stairs, my chest tight, my throat dry. By the time I burst outside into the cool October air, I’m working myself up into a full-blown panic attack.

I want to run—hell, I want to fly. I want to lose myself in the lights and noise of Hollywood Boulevard. I want to race blindly down the street, not toward anything, but away. Away from Jackson. Away from the past.

And away from this horrible sensation of being twisted up inside.

I want to, but I can’t. Because if I try to, I’ll no doubt trip in these damn stilettos, and I’ll end up breaking my nose on Clark Gable’s handprint outside the theater.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

So I walk instead, wishing there was a way to turn off my thoughts, to push away my emotions.

You want me on the project, I want you in my bed.

Those words had hit me with all the force of a train, and now I’ve lost my grip on everything. My plans for the resort, my hopes for a bump in career.

I’d had everything all worked out, each step on the path so perfectly planned.

And then came Jackson, and the fantasy that I could keep a tight hand.

How could I have been so stupid? Because hadn’t Jackson unraveled me from the first moment I’d laid eyes on him?

Five years ago, I think. Five years almost to the day from when I’d first met him. Five years and two days from the moment I’d asked him to walk away from me.

No, not two days. Two lifetimes. Two eternities. Because there is no way that I could have crammed everything I felt for him—everything I still feel for him—into so short a time.

Except I did. We did.

It started, I remember, with the pandas.

I’d had a truly crap day. I’d just been fired. Or sort of fired. My boss, an Atlanta real estate investor named Reggie Gale, had decided to retire and had chosen to tell me that rather disturbing news while we were driving to a private reception hosted by the Brighton Consortium, a group comprised of various real estate professionals, and of which Gale was a member.

Considering I’d moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta straight after college to work for Gale, and considering I loved both real estate and my job, I wasn’t having the most awesome of days. I was twenty-one years old, I’d been employed by Gale for not quite six weeks, I still hadn’t bought curtains for my apartment. And I wasn’t thrilled about diving back into the job market.

The consortium was hosting the reception in the panda area of Zoo Atlanta, and the whole idea was to be festive and fun and woo additional investors.

Needless to say, I was not in a festive mood.

“Let me guess. You’ve seen one panda, you’ve seen them all.”

The low voice, soft and smooth and just a little amused, seemed to wrap around me, forcing me to shift my attention from the pandas in their habitat to the man standing next to me.

“I—what?” Not the most coherent of responses, but he’d caught me off guard. I was standing on the veranda that overlooked the panda habitat. I’d come here to escape the mixing and mingling and to lose myself in both thought and worry. The pandas, though undeniably adorable, hadn’t actually been on my mind.

Now, looking at him, all of my work-related frustrations fizzled away as well. Only one thing filled my head. Him. His broad shoulders. His chiseled jaw. The strong lines of his face, softened by just the slightest indentation in his chin.

He looked to be in his late twenties, and he held himself with a self-confidence that could seem arrogant on some men, but on him just struck me as sexy.

His face was angles and shadows, a warrior’s face, and so exquisite it could make the gods weep. As for his eyes, they shone like cut sapphire, blue and hard. But they gleamed when he smiled, and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled humanized the brilliant sheen of those oh-so-perfect features. Like everyone at this outdoor reception, he was dressed casually. On him, however, casual was compelling, and the simple outfit of jeans and a starched white button-down—the top button left open—didn’t seem simple at all.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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