Say my name, p.15
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       Say My Name, p.15

         Part #1 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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  "Why?" he asks. "There must be more than a dozen pictures of my buildings on that table. I want to know why."

  "I told you why in Atlanta. I like architecture."

  "I want the truth, Sylvia."

  My name sounds soft on his lips, and I sag a bit, losing some of my defiance. "Maybe I misstated reality a little when I said I didn't follow your career."

  He cocks his head. "You took all these pictures? Of dozens of my buildings?"

  "I like architecture," I say again.

  He returns to the table and pulls out a few of the photos that sit inside the open box. The first are additional shots of Jackson Steele buildings. But under that, he finds my house photos.

  He pulls out one, two, eight, a dozen. After he's spread them on the table, he turns to me again. "I know you like architecture," he says with more than a little irony in his voice. "But I never saw you as going fangirl over residential buildings."

  "I like to look at houses." I shrug, because there really is no more to say.

  "Why?"

  "Does it matter?" I snap. I go to the coffee table and gather them up--small cottages, large mansions, log cabins, adobe pueblos. Some in fancy neighborhoods, some in gangland. Some in places like Brentwood where I grew up.

  I toss them all back inside the box.

  "Why?" he asks again, this time more gently.

  "I don't know." It's only half a lie. I have done this for years--even back when I was a child I would walk the neighborhood with a disposable camera--and I can sit for hours staring at a house, making up stories about the people who live behind the walls. In college, I took photography classes and spent almost all my time shooting houses. Now, it is both an obsession and a passion.

  But I tell none of that to Jackson, and I still don't answer his question. But the truth is, I don't know why. Because I'm not sure what I expect to find when I look through the lens. All I know is that I haven't found it yet.

  For a moment Jackson says nothing, he simply looks at me. Then he picks my dress up off the couch and hands it to me. "Put it on."

  "But--" I'm not sure why I'm protesting, I only know that I'm confused.

  "It's well after eight," he says, though his voice sounds tired enough that it could be after midnight. "I think it's time I take you to dinner."

  twelve

  Jackson has my skirt unbuttoned and his hand on my thigh when the waitress pushes open the sliding paper partition to enter the small, private booth.

  As she does, Jackson leans over and kisses my ear, at the same time whispering, "Quiet."

  At first I don't understand what he means, but then his hand slides north and his fingers find my thong. I freeze, terrified that he is going to do exactly what I know he's going to do. And yet even as I'm fervently wishing that I could slide over to the next colored cushion, some tiny treacherous part of me wants what he is offering. A forbidden touch. A secret pleasure.

  Good god, what the hell am I thinking?

  I start to squirm away in protest, but he catches my eye and shakes his head just slightly as the kimono-clad waitress bows, then kneels carefully on the far side of the table from us. As she places the decorative tray of sushi and sashimi in front of us, Jackson's finger slides under the lace to tease and play with me.

  We are sitting on a backless bench of cushions that is directly on the floor, our feet descending into the sunken area which holds the table in this high-end, Beverly Hills sushi restaurant.

  It is the kind of place where executives broker million-dollar deals. It is not the kind of place that hides lust and passion in dark corners while the rest of the world looks away.

  And yet there is Jackson, gently stroking my clit as the waitress refills our sake.

  And there is me, biting my lower lip, my cheeks surely burning, as I try to sit completely still as tremors of pleasure burst through my body.

  Whether I should be or not, I cannot deny that I am wet--so desperately wet. And that right then I am craving more.

  Jackson does not disappoint, and as he slides his finger inside me, I swallow a small sound of surprise and pleasure, then close my hands tight around the edges of the table.

  The waitress's smile never wavers as she takes our empty soup bowls, stands, and leaves silently with another small bow at the door.

  "Jackson!" There is something like panic in my voice as I whisper his name.

  "Tell me more," he says. "What did Galway say when you told him Stark wanted to buy the island?"

  When we'd arrived at the restaurant, I hadn't known what to expect. Jackson's mood had shifted in the apartment, going from heated demand to practiced politeness, as if we were a couple out on a first date, each being slightly careful around the other.

  His choice of restaurant had surprised me as well. We'd never gone out for sushi in Atlanta, but I'd mentioned once that it's my favorite food. I considered asking if he'd come here on purpose, but the truth is I wanted to believe it had been intentional, and didn't want to know if coming here had been little more than a coincidence.

  He'd insisted that we sit next to each other, and so we'd both taken a colored cushion on the side of the table facing the sliding door. I kept anticipating his touch, and yet there was none. Instead, he was practiced politeness, asking me about where I'd traveled with the company, what I did as Stark's assistant, even how I came to be the project manager for The Resort at Cortez.

  And the entire time I was going a little bit nuts. He wasn't touching me at all. He was a perfect gentleman. This was, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly lovely date.

  It was what I'd told myself I wanted--to have Jackson back off from his ridiculous game. To simply work with him and not get my head and my emotions all twisted up.

  And yet ...

  And yet there I was, my body primed, my heart skittering with every movement and casual brush of his hand as I wondered if, maybe, he was finally going to touch me.

  Nor did it help that I was certain that Jackson was intentionally tormenting me. And yet I had no proof whatsoever. His conversation was smooth, his manner polite.

  And even so, he was slowly and methodically driving me crazy.

  "So you got the idea for the resort from nothing more than a newspaper article?" he asked.

  I don't remember answering, but I must have, because I remember distinctly that he put his hand on my thigh and started unbuttoning my dress while I was telling him about how Damien blew off his tax-planning meeting.

  I froze, the words stumbling over my tongue. I had the ridiculous urge to scoot away, but damn me, hadn't I been craving this very thing, despite all my good sense and judgment?

  So I stayed, and I talked, and I was talking still when the waitress came in, and I realized that was what Jackson had planned all along. Not simply the touch, but a forbidden one.

  Not simply desire, but the need to fight it. To hide it.

  And goddamn him, I couldn't deny the fact that the secret pleasure made the sensation of his finger playing with me, fucking me, that much more incredible.

  "Galway," Jackson urges now as his finger strokes small circles on my clit, making my head spin and my thoughts scatter.

  "Jackson, I--"

  "Tell me," he repeats, and so I do. I tell him about the phone call and Galway's laughter when he thinks that Damien is joking, then his surprise when he learns that Damien really does want to acquire the island.

  "Stark sounds like a man who gets what he wants," Jackson says.

  "He is."

  "So am I," Jackson whispers as he thrusts three fingers inside me, fucking me with his hand, and damn me, I writhe against the motion, wanting him to go deeper, trying to feel the brush of his skin against my clit as my thoughts continue to spin and my mind loses focus.

  "What is it you want?" I gasp, as spirals of pleasure seem to burst around me.

  "You," he says. "At my mercy."

  And with those four simple words, he withdraws his hand and my pleasure. "I think," he says
casually, "that it's time to eat."

  I am frustrated and antsy and thoroughly pissed off during the meal. He'd taken me right to the precipice, then left me dangling, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that the meal--though it has all my favorite rolls and sashimi--holds very little appeal.

  There is instead something I want much, much more, and I put down my chopsticks and slide my left hand under the table to rest upon his thigh. He glances sideways at me, but doesn't protest. Not even when I slowly ease my hand up, higher and higher until I find his cock, hard and thick beneath his slacks.

  I smile, once again feeling powerful and in control as I slowly stroke him, then ease my fingers up to search for his zipper.

  "Stop."

  His voice is low and simple and he does not look at me.

  I find the zipper pull and start to ease it down. "What if I don't want to stop?"

  "Then don't." He turns now and looks straight at me. There is heat in his expression, and amusement as well. "That's what free will is all about."

  "Exactly," I say, happy to have finally turned the tables.

  "But if you don't stop, I will."

  I halt my effort to carefully unzip him. "What do you mean?"

  "I mean it's up to you. Do you want me to touch you? Stroke you, make you come?"

  I do not answer, but I have also stopped moving.

  "Do you want pleasure, Sylvia? Or do you want the more hollow satisfaction of thinking that somehow you've managed to best me, when we both know in the end I will have you naked and open to me, limp and sated. And the more you come in my arms, the sweeter my victory will be."

  I swallow, not entirely certain I could form words right then, even if I had to.

  "Surrender, princess, and you'll get the orgasm I denied you earlier. Don't stop, and I'll be the only one who gets off for a very, very long time."

  I believe him. And while I wish I had the strength to follow through and make him come--to sacrifice my own pleasure for the sake of a victory--I just can't do it.

  I pull my hand away.

  "Good choice," he says, and there is no denying both the heat and the victory in his voice. "I promise, sweetheart, that you won't regret it."

  He nods at the table and I realize that we've finished the meal. "Dessert?"

  I shake my head.

  "No? I want dessert. I just don't want it here." He brushes his finger over my lower lip. "A moment," he says, then stands. He goes to the door, slides it open, then signals for the check.

  As he's returning to the table, the theme from Star Wars starts to blare from my purse.

  I wince as Jackson laughs.

  "Yoda calling?"

  I roll my eyes as I rummage for my phone. "My brother."

  I glance down at the screen and feel the blood drain from my face as I read the text message.

  Hey, Silly!

  Guess who's finally moving back to the good old USA?

  Arriving in three weeks--just in time for Halloween.

  Pick me up at LAX? Then let's shoot down to Irvine.

  Mom's all psyched about putting on a huge spread for us.

  And Dad says he doesn't see enough of you, either.

  Love you, big sis.

  Miss you.

  See you soon.

  "Something wrong?"

  I realize that I've been staring at the phone for a hell of a lot longer than it takes to read one text message.

  "I--no. Not a thing. Just give me a sec." I manage a smile as I type out a response, but am frustrated to see that my hands are shaking.

  So psyched you're coming home! At a work thing, so more soon.

  Send flight details--I'll be there with balloons!

  Not sure can swing Irvine. Crazy busy at work.

  XXOO

  I force myself to look up at him, then flash as bright a smile as I can manage. "So, check all taken care of?"

  He hesitates, then nods. "We can go."

  I smile, trying my best to look normal, and follow him out of the restaurant.

  Origami is one of the new, hot places on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, just a few doors down from the entrance to the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Jackson had parked at the hotel, and I'd anticipated dinner in one of its incredible restaurants. But he'd surprised me by leading me through the lobby and to the street.

  Now, we're heading back, and Ethan's text still weighs on me, along with all the tension and fears that just the thought of seeing my parents raises.

  "Do you want to talk about it?"

  I turn to look at him, surprised. "I didn't think that conversation was part of tonight's program." My words come out harsher than I meant, and I immediately regret them. Despite everything, there was genuine concern in his voice, and even though this night is all about punishing me, I truly didn't mean to be a bitch.

  "I'm sorry," I say. "And no. I'd rather not talk about it. Really," I add, because the expression on his face suggests that he is going to argue.

  He nods reluctantly, and we continue walking in silence. But the odd thing is that I feel a bit better. The night is cool and clear, the air crisp and sweet-smelling. I'm on one of the prettiest streets in the world, with glitz and glamour lit up in the shop windows that we are passing.

  And despite the fact that I hurt him so deeply, the man at my side still cares about me. At least a little.

  It's enough to sweep away my anger and fear. Three weeks is a lifetime away, and tonight is not the time to open the door to more memories. And, frankly, tonight I have enough on my mind with Jackson. I don't need my family in my head, too.

  I frown as we pass the valet stand. "Aren't you getting your car?"

  "Not just yet," Jackson says as a liveried doorman greets us. With Jackson's hand pressing gently against the small of my back, we enter the stunning lobby. It's awash in a golden light that makes the polished marble floor glow in a way that draws out the iconic circular design that looks a bit like a target symbol. At the center of the circle stands a giant table with an enormous--and gorgeous--flower arrangement blooming bright beneath one of the most ornate chandeliers I've ever seen.

  "I love this hotel," I say. "It's like stepping back in time with its mix of classical and art deco elegance."

  "I'm glad you like it," Jackson says. "I thought we'd have a drink here."

  "Really?" I look around for the lobby bar.

  "No. Not in the bar." He heads toward the registration counter, and I follow, a little bit curious--and a little bit certain that I know exactly where this is going.

  "Jackson Steele," he tells the girl. "I booked a room this afternoon."

  "Of course, Mr. Steele." She hands him his key. "Is there anything else you need?"

  "I spoke with the sommelier earlier as well. I'd like a bottle of the Petrus Pomerol 1998 sent up to the room. Two glasses. And caviar, please."

  Her eyes have gone a little wide, and I understand why. I'd ordered five bottles of that very vintage last Christmas for Damien to send as gifts to some of his most important clients. Even with Damien's wholesale sources, the bottles sold for over a grand each.

  "Of course, Mr. Steele," she says, apparently remembering herself. "I'll have that sent right up."

  Up turns out to be the penthouse, and I have to admit that even after all I've seen traveling with Damien, I have never stayed in such highbrow accommodations. I know I should play it cool, but I have to confess that I goggle a bit. So much, in fact, that I'm still standing near the ornate double doors when the room service waiter knocks. I scramble out of his way as he wheels in a small table with the wine, two glasses, and a spectacular selection of caviar. Jackson lets the waiter uncork the wine, but declines his offer to pour. And as soon as the man is gone from the room, he crooks his finger at me.

  "Come," he says, and I can't help but think about how many meanings that simple word has.

  "You have a very strange idea of revenge," I say. "My favorite dinner. A penthouse suite. Caviar. And one of the most ex
pensive bottles of wine in the history of the universe."

  "I don't know that it's quite that pricey."

  I merely look dubious.

  "Like I said, princess. I want you to remember everything you gave up."

  "Dammit, Jackson--" I cut off my words.

  "No. I don't want to hear that you had to. I don't want to hear that you're sorry."

  "No?" I hear the exasperation in my voice. "Then what the hell do you want?"

  "I thought I was clear," he says as he pours a glass of wine and strides toward me. He pauses just inches away and hands me the wine. I take a sip, barely even noticing the incredible palate. I'm too intent on watching Jackson to notice something as unimportant as wine.

  He is looking me up and down with the kind of intensity designed to make a woman melt, and it's clear from his expression that while he is hungry, it is not for caviar.

  "I want to take you to the edge and back," he says as he unbuttons my dress. I stand perfectly still as he peels it off my body. "I want to watch you lose control," he continues, and now he unfastens my bra and slowly removes it. "I want to make you come," he says as he eases me out of my shoes and stockings, then unhooks the garter and lets it fall to the floor. "And, princess," he adds as he hooks his finger in the band of the thong and pulls so hard the elastic snaps, making me flinch, though I do not otherwise move. "I want to make you scream."

  He leans in and kisses me, soft and sweet, like a man seeking sanctuary, and in sharp contrast to the brutality of his words and the way he stripped me from the last of my clothes. "But first things first."

  I stand there, my mouth tingling from his kiss, not entirely certain what just happened. One moment I was standing there, facing a slow seduction with caviar and wine. The next, I'm naked and hot and more turned on than I want to be by the wildness of his words.

  "With me," he says, then leads me into the gorgeously appointed bedroom. It's done in beige and brown, with some cream thrown in, and looks both comfortable and elegant.

  He nods toward the bed, and I sit on the edge. He looks at me a moment, as if considering, and though I try to discern his thoughts, I cannot read his face.

  He moves to the window and lays his hand flat on the glass. I see his eyes in the reflection, and I know that he is looking at me. "I need you to tell me something."

  I am relieved by his words since now I will perhaps have some clue as to what is going on in his head. "Sure," I say. "Anything."

  "Are you still fucking him?"

 
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