Say my name, p.25
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       Say My Name, p.25

         Part #1 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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  "Is that an accusation, Stark?" Jackson asks.

  "There were a limited number of people at my house on Sunday when Nikki mentioned Sykes and his girlfriend."

  "Unless those cameras were designed during the Dark Ages, the images are sent digitally from the source to your security department. Probably also simultaneously copied to your server and backup server." Jackson's voice is as sharp and precise as a scalpel. As for me, I'm feeling rather sick.

  "You have an oversight division that surely goes over incoming footage," he continues. "And I'd bet money that reviewing the incoming feed from the island is the responsibility of at least one desk security guard. If you're not going to monitor activity around all that expensive equipment, then why have the system in place at all?"

  He looks around the room as if searching for something. "I wasn't the only one at your party, Mr. Stark. And there've been a lot of eyes on that image," he says. "And yet I'm the only one in here getting my ass bitten off."

  "And if I learn that any of those folks are displeased about a past business arrangement, I'll be sure to call them in," Damien says as he aims the remote and continues to scroll through the article.

  I read the words that pop up and feel even more queasy.

  Perhaps conflict with starchitect--or should we say "Starkitect"--Jackson Steele is adding some stress to the mix over at Stark International. Our scandal scouts say that Steele is the newest addition to The Resort at Cortez team, but that Steele is no fan of Damien Stark. Just a few months ago, Steele announced that he had no interest in working on a Stark International project. So what could have un-hardened a heart made of Steele? We smell scandal!

  "Care to explain?"

  "I said that to your wife several months ago," Jackson says mildly. "And repeated it to you. What someone who overheard us prints or tells a reporter isn't something I can control."

  "Are you unhappy about what happened in Atlanta, Mr. Steele?"

  "What?" Jackson asks, his eyes darting immediately to me.

  "With the Brighton Consortium," Damien continues smoothly. "I've come to learn that if the project had gone forward, you would have been awarded the contract to design and build the complex on the full four hundred acres."

  I look between the two men. I hadn't realized how much Jackson lost when the Brighton deal exploded.

  "I wasn't the only one hurt when you swooped in, Stark. The consortium had investors, and yet you pulled strings and got your hands on enough of the earmarked land that there was no way the complex could be completed. Everyone involved took a loss. Everyone but you."

  "Business is about opportunities, Mr. Steele. Not coddling."

  "I see. I must have been confused by the references to racketeering and fraud being tossed around at the time."

  I have my hand on the edge of Damien's desk, using that to keep my balance. I may not know the details of what happened in Atlanta, but I do know that the vitriol in this room is beyond toxic.

  "So you've been holding on to a grudge based on your skewed version of the facts for five years, and when the opportunity arose to shove a few barbs my way you jumped on it--and injured Ms. Brooks and the real estate department in the process."

  "Are you actually suggesting that I would harm a project that now bears my name simply to get back at you?"

  Damien takes a single step toward Jackson. "I know my own mind. I know my own code, and I know how I value my work and what I have built over the years. But I know very little about you, Mr. Steele. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for now. But if it turns out that you're behind this, I promise I will bury you."

  "Understood," Jackson says.

  He turns to leave, and I move to follow. Because right then, I want to know what's inside Jackson's head.

  "Stay," Damien says.

  Jackson catches my eye, nods a brief acknowledgment, then strides out the door with the cool and calm demeanor of a man who doesn't have a care in the world.

  "What did you notice?" Damien asks me the moment the door shuts.

  I force myself to stand up straight and not panic. "He never denied it."

  "No," Damien says as he takes a seat behind his desk. "He didn't."

  "What does that mean?" I ask, afraid that I already know.

  Damien surprises me by shaking his head just slightly. "Might mean nothing." He meets my eyes. "If I'd been in his position I wouldn't admit or deny anything, either. Why give some fucker who's put you on the spot the satisfaction?"

  I exhale, then sag a bit in relief. "I see." My relief is short-lived, however, when I remember the one thing that Damien still does not know--the memory card that Jackson took from the island. I think of it--and feel anger and betrayal boil in my gut.

  "But I'll keep my eye on him and the project. He's in a unique position to cause some real hurt. You should keep an eye out, too," he adds, and something in his voice suggests that it's not hurt to the company he means, but to me.

  I conjure a generic smile. "I will. Of course." I take a half-step toward the door, eager to get out, but Damien halts me with his next words. "There's something else you need to see."

  Something in his voice fills me with dread, and I turn back to him slowly. "What's wrong?"

  He nods toward the screen. The LA Scandal article disappears, replaced by a single photograph.

  I swallow as my cheeks heat with mortification. It's an image of me and Jackson locked in an embrace. And not a sweet end-of-a-movie-type kiss, either. No, this was when Jackson had grabbed me, pulling me close, practically fucking my mouth with his tongue. One hand is in my hair, the other starting to slide under the waistband of the yoga pants to tease my ass.

  Just looking at the image makes me squirm--in embarrassment, yes, but also from the memory.

  "Mr. Stark," I say, then have to clear my throat because that came out way too high and squeaky. "I'm--"

  I give up, not sure if I should start by apologizing for being caught on tape or for being unprofessional. And not entirely sure how to phrase either.

  "Sit down."

  I sit. Legs together, hands in my lap, eyes down.

  "Look at me."

  I draw in a breath and lift my head, prepared for whatever lashing he's about to dole out. But where I expect to see retribution on his face, I see only concern. "You're not in trouble, Syl," he says gently. "But I am worried."

  I feel myself relax immediately. "I didn't think about the security cameras. And then when I remembered--well, I never thought that you--that anyone--would see that." Not entirely true. I knew the guys in security would, but none of them would have sent the picture to Damien without telling me first.

  "I doubt I would have had it not been for the Scandal story. I pulled the feed myself."

  "So this isn't wide?" I realize only as I say the word that I'd been half-worried that this was fodder for some second LA Scandal story.

  "As far as I know, no one's seen it except me and Nikki. I found it at home. She was with me. I'm sorry about that."

  "No, it's okay." I run my fingers through my hair, not really sure how I feel about any of this other than horribly embarrassed and incredibly unprofessional. "You should know that--"

  Once again I cut myself off. I'd been about to deny, but deny what? That Jackson and I are involved? We are. That it has nothing to do with the resort? It does.

  Finally, I settle on the generic. "You should know that although I'm incredibly embarrassed that you've seen that, it doesn't negatively impact the resort. Not my dedication to the project or Jackson's."

  "I'm going to say this only once--I believe you. But if it turns out I'm wrong, I'll take you off the resort and put Trent on it so fast your head will spin."

  I squeeze my fingers together. "I understand."

  "That's not my primary concern, though."

  "There's no policy against intra-office dating, and--"

  "Dammit, Sylvia."

  I freeze. "Sir?"

  "This isn't about policy. This is
about you."

  I wait, not sure where this is going.

  "You're a good employee, but you're also a good friend. I understand men like Steele, and I don't want to see you hurt."

  "I--oh." I draw in a breath.

  "I don't trust him. I've given him the benefit of the doubt about the Sykes footage, but the key word there is doubt."

  "I understand. But I believe him." The latter is not entirely true. Because right now I'm not sure. I want to believe that Jackson wouldn't do that--wouldn't use our time on the island to gain some leverage against the project. Against Stark.

  I want to believe it--but there's the damn memory card filling my head.

  That, however, is not something Damien needs to know, and I feel a little sick. Both from my rising anger and worry, and from the simple fact that I'm keeping secrets from my boss.

  Damien's smile is thin. "I know you trust him. And now we've circled back to why I'm worried about you."

  He moves his hand in a dismissive gesture. "We'll drop it now. But, Syl, I'm going to pay attention. And if I think that he's using you as a way to get to the project--or if he's doing anything to hurt you--I will destroy him. I protect my employees, Ms. Brooks. And I also watch out for my friends."

  I nod, moved by the words, even though the concern behind them scares me. Because between my knowledge of the memory card and the doubt that Damien has planted, my thoughts are spinning. I rise, ready to get out and get my head clear.

  "One more thing before you go. It's possible my father is part of this."

  "Your father?"

  "He's meddled in my business before, pulled in the gossip rags, manipulated things for his own benefit."

  I nod. I know well enough that what Damien says is true.

  "And he's the type of man who would pull strings from behind the scenes."

  "You think he's getting information from someone here?" I frown, remembering that Jeremiah Stark had been at the documentary screening. Evelyn said he was on the National Historic and Architectural Conservation Project's board, just like Michael Prado. Did that mean he knew Jackson? And even if he did, so what?

  I start to mention the connection to Damien, but decide against it. The truth is there is no connection--just my mind turning in conspiratorial circles. And until I ask Jackson, there's no reason to mention a thing--although those damn doubts of mine are now buzzing around like gnats.

  "I think it's something to think about," he says, "but don't think too hard. Focus on the work, not the scandal. That's just noise, Sylvia."

  I nod. From his perspective, he's right. From mine, I need to ask Jackson about the scandal--and about that goddamn memory disk. And even about Jeremiah Fucking Stark.

  "I leave in just a few hours. I don't like going away when someone is fucking with my company."

  "I know how to reach you if anything else happens," I say. "Or if we learn anything concrete."

  I manage to remain calm and professional throughout the rest of our meeting, going over travel arrangements with Damien, things that I need to handle for his desk or pass off to Rachel.

  By the time I leave, though, I've pent up so much worry and fear that I'm about to explode.

  "What's the matter?" Rachel asks, but I wave the question away. I need to update her on a lot of things, but that is just going to have to wait. Right now, I need to talk to Jackson.

  I find him on twenty-six, in the corner office which is the only fully finished area on this floor. The rest will be built out over the next few weeks to provide additional workspace for any draftsmen or other staff that Jackson needs to bring in on the project.

  There is also a reception desk just outside the office for Jackson's overprotective secretary. Right now, she's still in New York, but Jackson has already said that he may bring her out and keep his New York office temporarily dark while he's on the West Coast.

  I remember the way she kept him from me when I tried to make an appointment. This time, there is no dragon to get past, and I shove Jackson's door open and burst into his office.

  He's standing at a drafting table, and looks up, surprised, when I blow in.

  The room is a mess. Papers scattered everywhere, boxes tilted on their side, and I cannot tell if this is the chaos of moving or if Jackson has done a number on the room himself.

  I suspect the latter, and that only rekindles my temper and fears about that memory card.

  "I should have known." My voice is harsh yet controlled. Too controlled. "You told me. You told me this was about revenge. I thought you meant me. But all this time, you're trying to get back at Damien?"

  He lifts a finger, and holds it toward me, his face so tight that I know he is fighting not to explode. Frankly, I know the feeling.

  "Do not start with me," he says. "Don't you burst in here and tell me that you believe what that son of a bitch is saying."

  "Goddammit, I trusted you. Desperately. Intimately. You can't fuck with trust like that, Jackson. You just can't."

  For a moment, I think I see hurt flash in his eyes. Then there is only cold calculation. "What exactly do you think you know?"

  "The memory disk? That bullshit about a screen saver. You used me." I feel my eyes burn, and for the first time in my life I'm grateful that I cannot burst into tears. "You fucking used me. And why? So you can make Damien look bad?"

  "You have no idea what you're talking about," Jackson says very slowly. "And as for trust, I'm not seeing a lot of it from you, either."

  I take a deep breath and try to calm my temper. "Fine. Okay. Fine." I drag my fingers through my hair and try to regroup. "Do you know Jeremiah Stark?"

  "Stark's father?"

  "Damien thinks that his father may be behind some sabotage at the company."

  I try to read Jackson's face, searching for knowledge, but I see nothing but confusion, and I'm relieved.

  "Why?"

  "It's happened before. I can't get into the details, but I've seen a lot, and I've seen that man do some pretty reprehensible things, and the fact that Damien's his son only makes it worse. I mean, fathers should protect their kids, not use them."

  Jackson takes a step toward me, but right then, I do not want his compassion. I've let my own shit slide into this conversation, and that is not somewhere I need to go.

  I lift my head, steeling my resolve, and ask him point-blank, "Are you working with Jeremiah Stark?"

  He stops cold, and the gentleness I saw in him a moment ago vanishes. "Are you fucking kidding me?"

  "Stark was at your documentary," I say. "I saw him. And now I want an answer. Do you know him? Are you working with him?"

  "I am absolutely not working with Jeremiah Stark," he says, and I believe him.

  I still don't know what to think, though. I know what I saw with the memory disk. I remember what Trent told me about Jackson researching the island before he was even offered the project.

  I think about all that--and I don't know what it means.

  "So what's going on here?" Jackson says. "Is your boss firing me?"

  I shake my head. "No. There's no proof." I meet his eyes. "Damien doesn't know you took the memory disk."

  "I took the disk because I wanted a picture of us. I already told you that."

  "Yeah," I say. "That's what you said. You also said you wanted revenge." I draw in a breath. "The truth is, I don't know what's going on, Jackson. But the bottom line is that I'm not letting you fuck up my resort because of some vendetta you have against Damien for some land deal that happened five years ago."

  "I guess you know what you know," he says coldly.

  "I know I need to be careful," I say. "I know I need to be smart." I'm afraid, so very afraid, that I've opened myself too much to this man. That I know better than to let myself trust. And that now I am paying the price.

  "Then be smart," he says. "Because if you use your head, you know that I would never, ever put this project in jeopardy. My reputation means too much to me. You mean too much to me. Everything you'v
e told me? Every part of yourself that you've given me? Do you really believe I would violate that trust?"

  "I don't know," I admit, and feel as though my heart is breaking. "I just don't know."

  "No? Well, you should."

  "Jackson."

  "Go," he says.

  "Jackson, dammit, we need to--"

  "Right now, Sylvia, I need you to leave."

  twenty-one

  Right now, Sylvia, I need you to leave.

  The words cut through me, hot and horrible. They're my words, the ones I said to him so many years ago. And for over an hour they fill my head as I shower and redo my makeup in the women's locker room.

  When I can't use that as an excuse for hiding anymore, I go up to my desk on twenty-seven and try to get some work done on the resort, hoping that poring over details will leave no room for my thoughts of Jackson.

  But considering the project for the day is dealing with the FAA about the small landing strip, my mood has not improved much by the time I push my work aside so that I can walk down the hill to the offices of Bender, Twain & McGuire, where Cass is meeting Ollie for her franchise planning meeting.

  I've been to this office dozens of times with Damien, so I'm not surprised when Cyndee, the receptionist, tells me to just go on back to the small conference room. The blinds are closed, and I feel a stab of guilt as I realize that I'm running five minutes late, and the meeting has started without me.

  I tap on the door, then let myself in, my apology dying on my lips when I see Jackson sitting next to Cass.

  Across the table from them, Ollie looks up. "Sylvia, we're just getting started. Help yourself to a cookie," he adds, pointing to the familiar tray of cookies and Danish, which is my favorite part of coming to meetings at this office. The snacks are awesome.

  I grab an oatmeal-raisin cookie and take the seat next to Cass so that she is a buffer between Jackson and me. I feel his eyes on me, but I don't look his way. I can't look at him and be certain that I can keep my shit together. And this meeting is too important to Cass to allow my personal problems to mess with my head or her deal.

  Despite her nerves and her fears, the questions that Cass fires at Ollie are good ones. I'm impressed with Ollie, too. I've never worked directly with him, but I do know that he was in the litigation department for a while, and I'd been a little concerned that he wasn't going to be up to speed on the ins and outs of franchising. But he knows his stuff, and he not only runs Cass through all the moving parts that need to happen to get her set up, but he's also incredibly patient with her questions and doesn't fall back into legalese.

 
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