“That’s better,” he says after he’s unfastened the top two buttons. “But your face. Come on, Elle, I’m going for a certain look. A softness. A sensuality. Can you give me that?”

I watch as my mouth tightens into a firm line. I say nothing.

“Put your arms above you,” he says. “Hold on to the column.”

I do.

“Good girl. And what a nice clean line that makes.” He trails his finger down my arm, then over the swell of my breast. He stops there, cupping my breast. I watch as the other me closes her eyes.

“Actually,” he says, “that’s not bad. The young and nubile female against the Roman pillar. It’s almost like a mythological theme. Almost like you’re Aphrodite.” He starts to unbutton my dress.

“No!” I say from my place in the shadows.

“Don’t,” I say at the column.

“Who’s in charge here?” he asks. “What am I paying for? While you’re here, you’re mine, remember? You have to trust me. It’s my job to make you look good, right?”

He pulls open the dress front, revealing my breasts, tight in the too-small bra.

I see myself squeeze my eyes tighter.

“Not gonna be a good shot if you don’t relax. But don’t worry, Elle. That’s part of my job. To make sure you look right on camera. To make sure you relax completely.”

As he talks, he’s undoing the rest of the buttons. I watch as he strokes me, as he touches me. I remember all the things he’s done—all the things he’s doing right now. Where his hands are. Where his mouth is.

I don’t watch him—I can’t. The world around me is turning gray and all I want to do is escape from these memories, but how can I leave when I would still be trapped here, that other me, angry and scared and so, so ashamed.

I hear Bob’s words, raw and needy, and grit my teeth. I keep my eyes locked on the other me’s face. That me is still standing, arms still above her head. And Bob is on his knees in front of me. He isn’t talking now.

I scream for the other me to push him away. To slam her hands down and crack his head. To thrust a knee up and break his jaw.

But she doesn’t. The opposite in fact, as she slowly loses control.

Her clenched jaw loosens. Her lips part. Her skin flushes. I see her body writhe. Her little gasps.

And then there is that building pressure. The sense of an impending explosion. It’s filling her—me—us. And oh, fuck, it feels good. And it’s getting bigger and bigger and I look down, but it’s not Bob who’s touching us. Using us.

It’s Jackson.

And that’s when it hits. A fierce orgasm rocks through me, and I realize that there is no other me. There’s just Elle. Just Sylvia.

Just shame. And confusion. And the cold, deep fear that if I keep breaking like this, I’ll never manage to put myself together.

The sound of my scream yanks me from both the nightmare and the memory.

I glance around, afraid that people have heard me. But I only screamed in my head.

I stand still and draw in one breath and then another, trying to shake the nightmare as I get my bearings. I’m in Los Angeles. I’m on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m standing on the sidewalk by the entrance to the Hollywood and Vine subway station, and I’m holding on tight to a signpost.

Atlanta is gone.

The past is gone.

But the dream still lingers. And Jackson—the man I could have loved, the man I brutally left—lingers as well.

I drag my fingers through my hair. I’d been so lost in my memories—so wrapped up in Jackson—that I hadn’t been paying attention. I’ve walked several blocks—a solid fifteen minute walk—without even realizing what I was doing.

“Shit.”

I bite out the curse, more scared than angry, because it’s been a long time since I’ve disappeared into myself like that. I tell myself that it’s okay. I’m just edgy and unsteady. But as I stand there, fighting the memories and the fear and the horrible nausea, I know that I have to get my shit together.

I glance around once again, but more for show than to actually get my bearings. I know where I am. More than that, I know what I want. What I need.

I’m practically vibrating with pent-up energy, and I need to burn it. Need to take control, be the one in charge.

And I know exactly how to manage that.

I turn off Hollywood Boulevard and head up Vine. In front of me, the cylindrical Capitol Records Building rises into the night sky, as if lighting my way. I’m not going that far, though. Instead, I’m heading for Avalon, an iconic Hollywood hotspot that’s been around in various incarnations since the twenties. Currently, it’s a popular dance club with excellent DJs and pretty fine techno music on Fridays. More importantly, it’s got a stellar dance floor and guaranteed crowds. I know, because this is where I used to come to lose myself in the days before Jackson.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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