I swallow. “It was.” I blink, wishing desperately that I could cry. “I had to ask you to leave. It couldn’t be me who left. You would have followed me.”

A muscle in his cheek twitches. “Christ, Syl. We’ve wasted a lot of time.”

“No,” I say, and I can see the surprise on his face. “I had to make you leave. I couldn’t handle it.” I draw in a shaky breath as I try to gather my courage. “I’m scared, Jackson. This,” I say, gesturing between the two of us. “What if it is a mistake?”

“It’s not.”

“You don’t know that. No,” I say when I see that he is about to interrupt. “I let myself go with you once, and I regretted it. I lost control when I shouldn’t have lost control. I was overwhelmed. There was—is—this intensity between us, and it was too much, because it just got all tied up with everything.”

I’m talking fast, the words spilling out, and I’m not sure he understands because I’m not sure I understand myself. “I felt unanchored, and then I felt stupid because I knew I shouldn’t have opened that door in the first place. I should have never left the pandas. And then it built and built until the nightmares came. The nightmares. The fears. All the goddamn memories, and—”

I cut myself off, biting down hard on my lower lip and looking away because I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know how to say that maybe this moment between us that felt so incredible is wrong. Is bad. Is a mistake that’s just going to rip us apart all over again. “I couldn’t handle it,” I finally say. “And I’m scared I won’t be able to handle it again.”

“What did you regret?” His voice is soft and gentle, in sharp contrast to my tone of rising hysteria.

I shake my head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You said earlier that you let yourself go with me, and that you regretted it. So did you regret the nightmares? Or did you regret leaving?”

“I—” My breath hitches, and I look away.

“No,” he says gently. “Talk to me, Syl. I can’t help if you don’t talk to me.”

“I’m not asking for help.”

“No, you’re not. But you’ll have it anyway.”

I close my eyes and take his hand, then close my fingers tight around his. “Leaving.” I take a breath, then open my eyes and look at him. “I regretted leaving every single day. And at the same time, I didn’t. Because staying would have destroyed me.”

“Oh, baby.” He pulls me close against him and presses a kiss to the top of my head. “I don’t know what’s hiding in your nightmares, but I will help you fight them.”

“I thought you were an architect, not a shrink.”

“I know a thing or two about the lingering scars of childhood,” he says. “My childhood was nothing like yours. But it still qualified as shit.”

I look at him, this man I’d always seen as so strong, and the vulnerability I see makes my heart twist. “Will you tell me?”

“I’m a bastard.” He shrugs. “That’s pretty much the sum total of it. And I mean that in the original sense of the word. My mother had an affair with a married man. Got pregnant. Had me.”

“So you never knew your dad?” As much as I often wished I’d never known my father, that still wasn’t a fate I’d want for a child. “Oh, no. I knew him. Knew my father. Knew all about his other family. I was two when my half-brother was born, and I knew every goddamn thing about him, and I wasn’t allowed to say a single word.”

“My god.” I’m trying to imagine what that would be like and failing. “My god,” I say again.

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. You could say it pissed me off, especially when I could see so plainly how much of my father’s attention my brother was getting, and how very little of his time was spent with me. I got angry. Very angry. The kind that explodes out. The kind that’s dangerous.”

I can’t help the way my gaze darts to the cut on his cheek.

He sees and flashes a rueful grin. “I turned anger into fights.”

“Jackson …”

He takes my hand, then kisses my palm. “And I channeled control into sex.”

I lift a brow. “Did you? I hadn’t noticed.”

“I guess I’ll have to try to be more obvious.” He gently strokes the hand he still holds. “My point is that when I realized I couldn’t fight all the shit that was in my past—in my head—I embraced it instead. You need to do the same.”

Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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