Cass looks up from the counter she’s tidying. “That’s a really good idea. Except I don’t think it’s franchised.”

“Can’t hurt to ask,” I say. “There’s no such thing as too much information. Besides, if you talk to her about it at her restaurant, you might actually get a free meal.” I grin to show I’m teasing. Mostly.

“Oh, hell. Now you’re just making me hungry. Let’s blow this Popsicle stand.”

“Yeah, about that—”

I cut myself off with a grimace, and she stops cold, hands on her hips. “Okay. Spill.”

“The thing is, I kind of need a tattoo.”

“You bitch. You told me you didn’t sleep with him.”

“I didn’t. I swear. This one’s not about sex. It’s about—” I cut myself off, then suck in a deep breath. “Okay, so here’s what happened.” I give her the rundown, and watch as her eyes get wider and wider.

“That fucking prick.”

“I’ve already called him that,” I admit. “And a few other choice names.” I pull my feet up on the table and hug my knees to my chest. “He’s trapped me, and he’s using me, Cass. He’s using me, and I want you to put a fucking chain on me, because I’m letting him, which is something I swore I’d never let happen to me again. But here I am, caving to him, because I can’t let the resort go.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, willing myself to cry. Wanting to cry.

And not being able to manage even one fucking tear.

Not even that, I think. Even that one small thing—the release of tears—and I can’t manage it.

“He’s locked me up tight,” I say, opening my eyes and meeting hers. “A chain. I want a chain.”

“No.” Her face is as fierce as her voice. “No, don’t you dare look at it that way. You could let it go. But the resort means a lot to you. And so you’re using him. You,” she repeats, pressing her fingertip against my shoulder. “You are using him. Using him to get what you want.”

“The resort,” I say. “I want the resort. And I’m taking steps.”

“Fuck yeah, you are. Just like you took the idea to Stark in the first place. You’re doing what you need to do to get the job done. Your job.”

“Yeah,” I say, liking the way she thinks. “But my job is going to keep me pretty much attached to Jackson’s hip. Tonight,” I say. “And then tomorrow, too.”

Her brows lift. “Expecting an all-nighter, are you?”

I lick my lips. “Considering Jackson’s terms, don’t you think I should be?”

She winces. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. And that wasn’t what I meant anyway.” I pause for dramatic effect. “We’re having after-lunch cocktails with Nikki and Damien tomorrow afternoon. At their house. In Malibu.”

“Seriously?”

“Nikki called as I was driving over. She’d already asked Jackson. Just casual food and drinks, she said. A welcome to the project thing. And it’s exactly what I should have expected, because that’s the nature of this job. I’m the project manager and our schedule is tight. We’re going to be working together pretty intimately.” I exhale, because the truth is that when I factor in Jackson’s ultimatum, there aren’t going to be many moments between now and the completion of the project when I’m not right there at Jackson’s side.

“Attached at the hip,” I repeat. “So I really want that chain.”

“No way, Syl.”

“Dammit, Cass,” I begin, because she knows me. She knows I need this.

But before I can get on a roll, she holds up a hand. “You need to own it, babe. Like I said, you’re the one using him. Your resort. Your project. So I won’t give you a chain. But I will give you a flame.”

“A flame?”

The smile that blooms on her face is just a little bit crooked. “Out of the frying pan, babe,” she says.

I laugh. I can’t help it. “And into the fire?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely.”

I draw in a breath, then nod. “Yeah,” I say. “I think I can live with that.”

ten

In the end, Cass and I blow off both the drinks and the shopping. I can only mix so much Jackson and alcohol and still feel safe. And although I could use a costume to hide behind, right now, I figure I can always rely on the tiny but brilliant flame that now flickers at the side of my left breast.

So when Zee called Cass and invited her over to spend the evening watching television on the couch, I didn’t mind the parting.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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