Ryan rubbed the back of his neck and was grateful that his heavy sigh was covered by the sound of the engine as it pushed the yacht and its fifty-plus guests through the water. Jaci had him tied up in every sailor knot imaginable. In his office this morning, it had taken every atom of his being to push her out of his lap so that he could get back to work. He was watching his multimillion-dollar deal swirling in the toilet bowl, Jaci’s career—her big break and, crazily, her self-worth—was on the line, and all he could think about was when next he could get her into bed.

Despite wanting her as he wanted his next breath, he also wanted to go back to being the uncomplicated person he’d been before Jaci hurtled into his life. And it had been uncomplicated: he had an ongoing love–hate relationship with his dead brother, a hate–hate relationship with his father and, thanks to Kelly’s lack of fidelity, a not-getting-involved attitude to women.

Simple, when you looked at it like that.

But Jaci made him feel stuff he didn’t want to feel. She made him remember what his life had been like before Ben’s death. He’d been so damn happy, so confident and so secure in the belief that all was right with his world. He’d accepted that his father was a hemorrhoid but that he could live with it; at the time his best mate was also his brother and he was engaged to the most beautiful girl in the world. He was starting to taste success...

And one evening it all disappeared. Without warning. And he learned that nothing lasted forever and no one stuck around for the long haul. It was just a truth of his life.

God, get a grip, Jackson. You sound like a whiny, bitchy teenager. Ryan turned his attention back to Jaci, who’d been content to stand quietly at his side, her shoulder pressed into his, her light perfume dancing on the breeze.

“So, whips and chains, huh?” It was so much easier to talk about Jaci’s failures than his own.

Jaci sent him a startled look and when his words made sense, her expression turned rueful. “Well, I’m not so sure about the chains but there definitely were whips involved.”

Dipstick, Ryan thought, placing his hand in the center of Jaci’s back. She sent him a tentative smile but her expressive eyes told him that she’d been emotionally thrown under a bus. He nodded to a padded bench next to him and guided Jaci to it, ordering another glass of wine for Jaci and a whiskey for himself. Jaci sat down, crossed one slim leg over the other and stared at the delicate, silver high heel on her foot.

“Talk to me,” Ryan gently commanded. He was incredibly surprised when she did just that.

“I was impressed by him and, I suppose, impressed by the idea that this rising-star politician—and he really was, Ryan—wanted to be with me. He’s charismatic and charming and so very, very bright.”

“He sounds like a lightbulb.”

His quip didn’t bring the smile to her face he’d hoped to see. “Did you love him?”

Jaci took a long time to answer. “I loved the fact that he said that he loved me. That everyone seemed to adore him and, by extension, adored me. Up to and including my family.”

Another of the 110 ways family can mess with your head, Ryan thought. It had been a long time since he’d interacted with the Brookes-Lyon clan but he remembered thinking that, while they were great individually, together they were a force of nature and pretty much unbearable. “My family loved him. He slid right on in. He was as smart and as driven as them, and my approval rating with them climbed a hundred points when I brought him home and then skyrocketed when I said yes to getting married.”

The things we do for parental and familial approval, Ryan thought with an internal shake of his head. “But he wasn’t the Prince Charming you thought he was.”

Jaci lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “We got engaged and it was a big deal, the press went wild. He was a tabloid darling before but together with the fact that he was gaining political power, he became the one to watch. And they really watched him.”

Ryan frowned, trying to keep up. “The press?”

“Yeah. And their doggedness paid off,” Jaci said in a voice that was pitched low but threaded with embarrassment and pain. “He was photographed in a club chatting up a Brazilian blonde, looking very cozy. The photos were inappropriate but nothing that couldn’t be explained away.”

She pushed her bangs out of her eyes and sighed. “About two weeks after the photographs appeared, I was at his flat waiting for him to come home. I’d prepared this romantic supper, I’d really pulled out the stops. He was running late so I decided to work on some wedding plans while I waited. I needed to contact a band who’d play at the reception and I knew that Clive had the address in his contacts, so I opened up his email program.”

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