There’s a red line station at Hollywood and Vine, and since the red line lets off just a block from Stark Tower, I decide that the best plan is to wear my cocktail dress to the office, change into the spare outfit I keep there, and get busy.

I skip the shower, dress quickly, then hurry to the station. Most of the outside is a matte gray metal, but the interior glows with yellow light from the dozens of golden and yellow-green glass tiles that line the interior, providing illumination as the escalator and stairs reach down into the actual station.

I don’t have my pass, but I do have a credit card, so I grab a ticket and hurry to reach the train that’s just pulling into the station. I’m lost in a crowd of tourists, and I let the mass push me along. It’s standing room only, but when we reach the stop at Western, a guy in a business suit gets off. I collapse gratefully into his vacant seat, and as I do, I see a familiar face in the crowd.

Jackson?

I blink, and when I look again, he is gone.

I know it must have been an illusion. Someone with his eyes, his hair. But it doesn’t matter. I still feel sad and more than a little lost.

Mourning, I think. And it’s true. I’m mourning my career and the resort, which will never have the chance to be. But mostly I’m mourning the promise of Jackson that died five years ago. A promise that I soundly and painfully killed when I told Jackson to leave.

I’d awakened in a cold sweat, the sheets soaked through, memories of Jackson’s face merging with Bob’s still filling my mind.

Beside me, Jackson slept, and I rolled out of the bed, fighting nausea as I stayed on my hands and knees on the floor just breathing in and out until I was certain that I wouldn’t throw up.

Didn’t work. I clapped my hand over my mouth and ran for the bathroom, making it just in time. Then I turned on the shower, made the water just shy of scalding, and got in the tub.

I didn’t stand. Just sat there with my knees up to my chest and my head down so that the water sluiced over me. And even as the steam rose around me, I shivered.

This was a mistake. I’d been so overwhelmed by the man that I’d forgotten what that would do to me. I’d ignored the warnings. The little sparks of panic and fear.

I’d thought that I’d actually kept some control. But that wasn’t true at all.

I’d surrendered completely. Mind. Body. I’d responded to every touch, yielded to every whim.

There’d been pleasure—oh, god, yes, there’d been pleasure—but it was tainted by his demands. And, more, by my reaction to him. By the fact that whatever control I’d thought I still clung to was nothing more than an illusion, because all he had to do was tell me to spread my legs and I did so eagerly. Shamelessly.

I asked only one thing of myself, and all it took was this one dangerous man to shatter everything.

Jackson had come into my life like a storm, fast and wild and unexpected, and I’d been so overwhelmed by his power and intensity that I forgot to consider just how dangerous he was for me. For years, I’d worked so hard to keep such a tight rein on control. To fight back all the demons that Bob had planted inside me. And I had. I’d found a way. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it worked for me. Or it had until tonight.

Tonight, Jackson had swept all of that away. And now there I was, battered and broken.

I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I wanted to run, but I feared that if I did, Jackson would follow.

The thought made my heart twist, but whether with longing or fear, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I had to end it now. While it was new. While it would be easy.

Except it wouldn’t be easy.

On the contrary, it would be the hardest thing ever.

The only thing harder would be to stay with him.

And though part of me begged to do just that, the rest of me knew that I wasn’t that strong, and if I wanted to survive, I had to end it.

Even if ending it ripped both of us to pieces.

When the train pulls into the Civic Center station, I blink the memories away, then follow the crowd to the street, then walk down the sidewalk to Stark Tower. Joe is working the security desk, and his brows lift when he sees me. “Are you all right, Ms. Brooks?” he asks as he rises, and I realize that in my wrinkled cocktail dress and smeared makeup I must look like I’m doing the walk of shame. And I guess I sort of am.

I hold up a hand to forestall him before he gets too worked up or worried. “I’m fine, really. It’s been one of those days to the nth degree. But everything is okay. I just need to get to my locker.”

He doesn’t look entirely convinced, but waves me through to the elevator banks.

“Clear me for the gym, please,” I ask, referring to the private fitness facility on the twentieth floor. “I have a spare access key in my locker, so I’ll be good to go after that.”


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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