I’d managed a tight smile and refrained from rolling my eyes. Always nice to be appreciated.
“Of course I do. You’re Sylvia Brooks,” Jackson said, my name sounding like ambrosia on his lips. “And though you’re not the reason I came here tonight, you are the reason I’ve stayed.”
I stood there, a little shell-shocked. Then I said, “Oh.”
It wasn’t my most brilliant conversational moment.
My idiocy didn’t seem to bother Jackson, though. Instead he just held out his hand again and flashed that killer smile. “Walk with me, Sylvia,” he said. “I promise I don’t bite hard.”
The flippant comment, said so seriously, made me laugh, and swept away the last of my hesitations. After all, what could be the harm in walking? I could always turn around and walk right back.
“All right, Jackson Steele,” I said, putting my hand in his. “Lead the way.”
I’d expected him to lead us off the veranda and into the covered pavilion where the dessert tables and complimentary bars were set up. Instead, he skirted the panda habitat, moving us away from the pavilion structure and down a path toward the interior of the zoo. We strolled beneath another covered structure where a few zoo employees were directing late arrivals up to the party.
I frowned. “I can’t just leave,” I said. “My boss is back there.” I didn’t bother mentioning that he was a lame-duck boss, and I was operating more on politeness than practicality.
“We’re not leaving,” Jackson said, as he guided me down the wide path to where it forked, one direction heading toward the exit, the other leading deeper into the zoo.
The latter was blocked by a red velvet rope suspended between two waist-high golden posts that acted like anchors. Jackson slipped between one post and a flowering hedge, then gave my hand a tug, indicating that I was supposed to do the same. I hesitated, brows raised.
He shrugged, his expression so disarming I had to laugh.
“I have a little problem with authority,” he said, as I joined him on the forbidden side.
“Only in certain circumstances.”
“Like what?” Our voices were low as we moved down the asphalt path toward the gorilla habitat.
“If I’m not the one in charge, I have a problem.”
I swallowed, because I knew we were no longer talking about velvet ropes. I expected a wave of panic followed by the urge to bolt, and when it didn’t come, I wasn’t sure what to think. And then when he drew me to a stop, I stopped thinking altogether.
“Sylvia,” he said as he reached out to stroke my forehead, smoothing a few strands of hair to the side. I dragged my teeth over my lower lip, my breath ragged. The easy laughter that had been between us only a moment before had faded, replaced by something heavy and palpable. Something dangerous.
Dangerous, yes. But compelling, too.
We’d paused beneath the rustic log gate that marked the way into the wilds of darkest Africa. Appropriate, I thought, considering how wild I felt.
He cupped my face in his hands, then bent low and brushed his lips gently over mine.
The kiss was soft and sweet and altogether too fast, and when he pulled back, I saw both heat and a question in his eyes.
I didn’t think. I didn’t hesitate. I simply eased forward, rising on my toes to bring myself closer. To claim. And, yes, to surrender.
He didn’t wait for my lips to reach his. I saw the change in his eyes—the moment when gentleness was pushed aside in favor of lust and need and the hard, demanding ache that throbbed between us. His hands shifted, one sliding into my hair and cupping the back of my head. The other snaking around my waist.
He pulled me close, his mouth open to mine, his hips hard against me. I felt his erection straining against his jeans, and my body thrummed in response, my skin prickling and my sex hot and heavy and desperate for his touch. I felt his palm cup my ass and pull me in tighter even as his mouth warred with mine, his tongue finding and tasting me, thrusting and demanding. Taking everything I had to give and more.
I’d been kissed, but never like this. Never so hard and deep and thoroughly that it felt like sex. That it swept me out of myself, making me forget my past and not care about my future. Making me want only this moment and this man.
Making me wish that I could cry, because when he finally pulled away from me, I wanted nothing more in that moment than to weep with regret.
I was completely out of my element, my mind in a sensual whirl. Instead of closing off, I’d opened up. Instead of walking away, I’d slid right into his arms.
Those weren’t my normal reactions, not by a long shot, but I couldn’t deny that I wanted more. That I wanted him.