I’d been traveling for business, going with Damien to meet with a number of his East Coast executives. I hadn’t yet seen the Winn Building, although I’d read everything I could get my hands on about it. I’d told Damien I was going to the museum one afternoon—I’m not sure why I lied—and I’d gone to the financial district instead. I’d stood across the street, my head tilted back, and I’d simply let myself go with the pleasure of those clean, perfect lines reaching up to the heavens and a sky as blue as the eyes I remembered so well.

And, yes, in some small way standing there in the shadow of what Jackson built was a bit like standing by the man himself.

I’d taken dozens of pictures, but as I look at them now, I can see that none comes close to capturing what in my memory is so raw and so vivid. I toss them back into the box, my dissatisfaction with the images reminding me that I need to reschedule with Wyatt and Nikki.

Before I can give Wyatt a call, though, my intercom buzzes. I’m not even close to ready for tonight, and I jump a little, only to sag in relief when a guy’s voice announces, “Got a delivery for Sylvia Brooks.”

I buzz him up, and a messenger in jeans, an oversized sweatshirt, and slanted baseball cap with the service logo bounces out of the elevator about the same time I open the door. He passes me a box wrapped in plain white paper and topped with a bright red bow.

Under the bow is a tag—and the tag says, Wear Me.

Despite myself, I smile. But when I open the box and peel open the tissue paper, my smile fades. The dress is red, but that doesn’t matter. Because it’s the dress. My dress. The exact same style as the yellow dress with the white buttons that he’d given me in Atlanta. I lift my hand to my mouth and make a small mewling sound as my knees go weak.

I’m standing by my kitchen table, and now I clutch the back of a chair, steadying myself, because I am certain this will shatter me.

And that, I realize, is exactly what he’s trying to do. This is about revenge, after all. About Jackson getting payback for what happened in Atlanta.

I take a breath, then another, trying to calm down. He wants to play dirty? Well, screw him.

He wants to play games, then fine. We’ll play games.

I stalk to my bedroom. It takes a few moments, but I find the box with my lingerie. I don’t own much in the way of fancy underthings, but I do own one set. A sexy black bra, a tiny thong, a garter belt, and a pair of elegant silk stockings.

It’s the set that Jackson gave me in Atlanta, and I’m relieved when I find the soft pink lingerie bag that I’d purchased in which to keep them.

I’d almost thrown them away, both the dress and the underthings. But I hadn’t. And the yellow dress, in fact, is folded up beneath the lingerie bag.

I consider tossing the red one aside and putting on the yellow dress, but no. I already have a plan, and it’s more subtle.

I don’t know why he hasn’t included lingerie with the red dress, but that means he isn’t expecting anything bold. For all I know, he’s forgotten, and instead of making me angry, that possibility makes me sad. Because every moment of every hour I’d spent with Jackson is burned into my mind. I’ve clung tight to those memories for five years, pulling them out to soothe me when I feel lost and alone.

It didn’t last—how could it with me being a basket case?—but at least I can hold the memories close and know that, for one shining moment, I had something right and sweet and wonderful.

For years, I’ve been silently grateful to Jackson for at least giving me those memories. I’ve spun our time together into nighttime fantasies and daytime dreams. I’ve made him a hero in my mind.

A knight, a protector. A man willing to make the sacrifice to keep me safe, and he’d proven it by walking away when I told him to.

That Jackson would never want revenge and he wouldn’t try to break me. He was a man worthy of my fantasies.

And he is not the man who is coming to my door tonight.

I need to remember that, I think. I need to keep it perfectly clear in my mind that the Jackson of today is playing games. And if I want to have any chance of surviving this round unscathed, I need to play, too. More than that, I need to win.

eleven

I’m in the short hallway leading to my bedroom when the intercom buzzes promptly at eight.

I’ve been standing there, my dress open, my body angled to put the lingerie to best effect as I look at myself in the mirror. As I do, my fingers touch my tats. Or, at least, the ones that will give me strength tonight.

The flame that Cass put on my breast, now slightly slick with the ointment I applied to soothe and protect it.

The lock that hides just under the tiny thong panties.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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