“Why don’t I come with you?”

I shift in my seat so that I’m looking more directly at him. “Really?”

“I’ve never franchised anything, but I have started my own business. I can’t promise I’ll be any help, but I think I can manage to come up with at least one or two intelligent questions.”

I just stare at him for a second.

“Is that a problem?”

“I’d really like to kiss you right now.”

“Well, that’s not a problem,” he says as I lean over in my seat and kiss his cheek. “And it won’t be a problem for Cass, either?”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s your best friend. And she just inked that lovely flame on your breast.” He takes his hand off the gear shift and squeezes mine. “I don’t know what you told her, but I can guess. And I doubt that I’m high up on her favorite-person list.”

“True,” I say. “I guess you’ll just have to treat me really great to earn her respect and admiration.”

I’m teasing, but there’s no humor in his eyes when he meets mine. “That’s my plan.”

“Right,” I say, licking my lips as a pleasant warmth washes over me. “Well, okay, then.” I sit quietly for a moment, watching the world go by, the Pacific on my left and the hills rising up on my right. “The truth is we both screwed this whole thing up.”

“And now we’re trying to fix it.”

“Lost years,” I say, my words mirroring his from last night.

He gently strokes my hair. “Maybe we just met too soon. Maybe now we’re ready.”

“Do you think so?”

“You let me in last night, didn’t you? You didn’t do that in Atlanta.”

“We didn’t exactly have time in Atlanta. Two days, remember.”

“Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?”

“On the clock, maybe. But there was nothing short about our time together. I knew you, Syl, and you knew me. And in those two days we connected more intimately than I have ever connected with anyone else.”

I don’t say anything, but he is mirroring my thoughts.

“That’s why it hurt. That’s why you ran—and that’s why you pissed me off so goddamn much when you came back into my life. Not because you wanted me, but because you wanted what I do.”

“I never didn’t want you.” My words are a whisper, but I know that he can hear them.

“I know. I get it.”

“What I mean is that it’s more than that. I haven’t been with a guy. Not since Atlanta.”

“I know,” he says.

“You do? How?”

When he looks at me, I see infinite understanding in his eyes. “The ribbon tattoo. There are no new initials.”

“Oh.” I smile, just a little. “You’re right.”

“Can you tell me why?”

I lift a shoulder. “Before, I needed it. Something would go wrong in my life. In school or a job interview, and I’d feel so lost and out of control, and I’d have to—”

“You’d have a Louis moment,” he says.

I roll my eyes, but can’t deny it. “Yeah, well, that surprised me, too. Because I thought I’d battled it back. I mean, since Atlanta, whenever I felt that way, I’d—oh, fuck.” I cut myself off realizing that I was getting into territory I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter, exposing things I wasn’t sure I wanted to expose.

“Tell me.” His voice is gentle. “Tell me, Syl, and let’s see if we can’t get past these last five years.”

I rub my palms over my face, feeling weirdly embarrassed. “It’s just that when I felt that way—lost, I mean—after Atlanta, well, I’d—god, it sounds stupid. But I’d follow you.”

“Follow me?”

“Well, not in person. But your buildings. Your career. Everything,” I add, thinking of the bits and pieces of gossip about the women in his personal life that I’d seen over the last five years.

“Why?”

It’s a good question, and one I’m not entirely sure I have an answer to. As far as I’m concerned, a dozen shrinks would give a dozen explanations. “I don’t really know. Maybe guilt, like you said. But I think the real reason was that I needed a reminder that I’m strong. If I’d left you and survived, then how could I not survive whatever else life threw at me? And then when I realized that I needed you for the resort …”

I trail off with a shake of my head and suck in air. “It was like the gods were standing in a circle raising their middle fingers at me, you know? Because I’d survived so much, but the one thing I couldn’t survive was you.”


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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