I tremble, lost and light-headed and confused. “I—I thought you said we were done.”

“We may be done, but we’re not over. We’re a hell of a long way from over.” His tone is still harsh, but beneath it, I hear something more. Regret? Resignation?

I don’t know, but whatever it is rips through my heart, leaving it ragged.

He drags his fingers through his hair, then exhales. He looks me up and down. He says nothing about what just happened. Nothing about our past. Nothing about the present. His expression is harsh and hard and unreadable.

But his eyes …

His eyes don’t lie, and the tenderness I see there comes close to destroying me. Because tenderness from Jackson is something I can’t handle.

“Come on,” he says, then surprises me by taking my arm.

“Where are we going?”

“Unless you want to make poor Louis walk home, we should probably get away from his car. I imagine he’s hiding around here somewhere.”

“Right. Of course.” I take a deep breath and force my thoughts back in the right direction. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about Jackson. And it’s not about us, because there is no us.

It’s about the resort, and I’d do well to remember that. “There’s gotta be a coffee shop open back on the boulevard,” I say. “Let’s have some coffee and dessert and we can talk about the project.”

“I already gave you my terms, princess.”

I don’t bother to answer. I tell myself he can’t be serious. He’s too accomplished a businessman and this is too plum a project. And once his temper cools down we can move on to serious discussion.

From his expression, however, I think that the resort is the farthest thing from his mind. Still, he starts heading toward Hollywood Boulevard, and I consider that a victory.

But we don’t make it that far. Instead, he shifts right past the nightclub and leads me to the door of the Redbury Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel that Cass has raved about a few times.

“No way,” I say, but I remember the way his fingers felt inside me just moments ago, and I have to forcibly plant my feet outside the main entrance. “No fucking way.”

He turns around and I expect to see either frustration or irritation on his face. Instead, I watch him melt a little. “No,” he says simply, almost gently.

Then he leans in and kisses me, this time so softly and gently that I think I will melt. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

“You are,” I say. And that is the heart of the problem.

He hesitates only a moment, and then continues through the doors. I consider protesting more, but I’m both confused and exhausted. I have no more fight left in me. And so I will stay beside him and see where this is going.

“Jackson Steele,” he says to the clerk. “Is Jennifer working tonight?”

“Of course, Mr. Steele. One moment.” A short while later, a stunning woman in a pencil skirt joins us in the lobby. She has a name tag pinned to her jacket lapel—Jennifer Trane, Night Manager.

“Jackson,” she says, shaking his hand in a manner that I’m certain would have been a very deep kiss were she not on the clock. “I didn’t realize you were checked in.”

“I’m not. I finally bit the bullet and got my own place. But my friend needs a place for the night. Could you see about getting her a room? Sylvia Brooks,” he says. “But I’ll take care of the charges.”

“The hell you will,” I say.

“We’ll get her settled,” Jennifer Trane the night manager says, as if I hadn’t spoken at all. If there is any jealousy lurking there, it is well hidden. Even so, I can’t help but wonder how they know each other. And as I wonder, I want to swiftly kick myself in the ass. Because I really don’t need to be going there.

“All set,” the night clerk says, then passes Jennifer a small envelope with my card key. “Right this way, Ms. Brooks,” Jennifer says, and I start to walk after her. For one moment, I consider simply bolting and getting a taxi. But my Santa Monica condo suddenly seems very far away, and the thought of a soft bed nearby is incredibly enticing.

I turn back, expecting to see Jackson behind me. Instead, he is still standing in the lobby. “Goodbye, Sylvia,” he says. And for the second time that night, Jackson Steele walks away.

eight

Sylvia …

Sylvia …

Sylvia!

I sit bolt upright, breathing hard. I’m in a strange, dark room, and something is buzzing repeatedly, sounding to my tormented mind like my name being called over and over and over again.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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