SAY MY NAME Stark International Book 1 by J. Kenner
Available April 7, 2015
New York Times bestselling author J. Kenner kicks off a smoking hot, emotionally compelling new trilogy that returns to the world of her beloved Stark novels: Release Me, Claim Me, and Complete Me. Say My Name features Jackson Steele, a strong-willed man who goes after what he wants, and Sylvia Brooks, a disciplined woman who’s hard to get—and exactly who Jackson needs.
I never let anyone get too close—but he’s the only man who’s ever made me feel alive.
Meeting Jackson Steele was a shock to my senses. Confident and commanding, he could take charge of any room . . . or any woman. And Jackson wanted me. The mere sight of him took my breath away, and his touch made me break all my rules.
Our bond was immediate, our passion untamed. I wanted to surrender completely to his kiss, but I couldn’t risk his knowing the truth about my past. Yet Jackson carried secrets too, and in our desire we found our escape, pushing our boundaries as far as they could go.
Learning to trust is never easy. In my mind, I knew I should run. But in my heart, I never felt a fire this strong—and it could either save me or scorch me forever.
Say My Name is intended for mature audiences.
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READ CH. 1 – http://bit.ly/Ch1SayMyName
READ CH. 2 – http://bit.ly/Ch2SayMyName
Get to know Jackson Steele – HERE
What the hell had I been thinking?
The man had flatly declined a meeting with me. Had I really believed that once he saw me in person everything would change? That he would rush over, take my hands, and ask me how he could help?
I didn’t believe that, no. But damn me, I’d hoped it.
It had seemed so simple in theory. Not easy—nothing about seeing Jackson again is going to be easy—but by the numbers. I could do it, especially because I had to do it.
But I’d choked.
Instead of taking the straightforward approach—find him, approach him, talk to him—I’d frozen. Instead of moving in, I’d let him pass me by.
I’d miscalculated everything, and whatever slim confidence I’ve been clinging to has been thoroughly and dramatically shattered.
I see Cass across the room laughing with a woman in a short, tight dress and sun-streaked blond hair. She glances my way, and I see her brows lift slightly in question. Need me?
I shake my head and smile. Cass broke up with her longtime girlfriend five months ago, and has been pretty much off the market since. If she’s connecting with this woman, no way am I going to mess up her rhythm.
Besides, it’s time to bite the bullet. I’d come here to pitch a project, and I was damned if I was going to leave without giving it a shot.
Jazzed from my mental pep talk, I start off in the direction in which he’d disappeared, only to be waylaid by the announcement that the film would begin in fifteen minutes, and guests should start making their way toward the theater.
The announcement pretty much destroys any chance of getting a spare moment with Jackson. For one thing, I’m certain he must have some sort of man-of-the-hour thing to do on stage before the film starts. For another, the crowd has become so thick that I have no choice but to be swept along with the throng.
allow myself to become part of the surge, making peace with the realization that I am going to have to either find Jackson right after the screening or wrangle my way into the after-party—a perk that my invitation doesn’t include.
Black clad ushers who are probably USC film students direct us out of the multiplex and over to the original Chinese Theater. It is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. I used to escape here as a teenager, losing myself to another reality hidden in this exotic venue. It’s been recently remodeled, but unlike the shining modernism of the ballroom we have just left, the lobby of the Chinese Theater still has a bit of camp, with statues brought from Beijing and Shanghai, ornate ceiling tiles and fixtures, folding screens used as wall decorations, and lots of red walls and carpets.
Once inside the theater, though, technology rules. The iMax screen is huge and state of the art, and I can’t deny the thrill of knowing that I’m about to see both Jackson and his work splashed larger than life in front of me.
I grab an aisle seat in the very last row, figuring that I’ll have the best chance of extricating myself from the crowd and finding Jackson if I can get out the door quickly once the film is over. The theater isn’t completely full, and there are five or six seats between me and the next person over by the time lights dim. I can’t help but be relieved. I’m on edge and antsy, battered by memories that are butting up against me, pushing and prying and trying to break free. I’m tired of fighting them. After the film, I can be strong again. But for the next seventy minutes, I want to lose myself to the past, to Jackson, and to the soaring images of the world that he has made.
A ripple of applause fills the room as a man I recognize as Jackson’s companion from the stairs takes the stage and introduces himself as Michael Prado, the documentary’s director.
“As many of you may know, I serve on the board of the National Historic and Architectural Conservation Project, and in that capacity it has been my privilege to observe the growth of many talented young architects. Some display raw talent. Some, a keen business sense. Still others have an innate ability to mesh form and function, location and purpose. Only once, however, have I seen all those attributes embodied in one man. And that man is here today. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jackson Steele.”
There is considerably more applause as Jackson takes the steps two at a time, then waves at the audience before shaking Prado’s hand.
“Thank you all for the warm welcome,” he says as he takes the mike. “And thank you Michael for your incredibly generous words. As you might realize,” he continues, turning so that he faces the audience without putting his back to the director, “a documentary of the nature that Michael has put together is an extremely invasive beast. And I say that with the utmost respect and affection,” he adds as the audience laughs.
“He’s trying to say that I got in his way,” Michael jokes.
“Or that I got in his,” Jackson says, handling the audience with undeniable skill. “But seriously, I owe this man a great debt. This documentary was in the works even prior to the board of the Amsterdam Contemporary Art and Science Coalition choosing my design for their museum. And while I can’t say that I was prepared to have my process so fully scrutinized, I can say that the experience has been both educational and rewarding. I’ve had the luxury of seeing my work through another’s eyes. That is a rare gift and one that should not be squandered. It taught me to respect my vision, but also to open my eyes.”
I am riveted as I watch him, so personable, so comfortable in front of a crowd.
He shifts on the stage so that he seems to look at everyone in the audience. “And now I am pleased to welcome you to the US premier of Stone and Steele, and to offer you this glimpse into another type of joint work. Michael Prado’s interpretation of the trials, tribulations, and successes that surrounded the funding, building, dedication, and opening of the celebrated—some might say infamous—Amsterdam Art and Science Museum.”
He pauses as the audience applauds once more, and it strikes me how much he reminds me of Damien Stark. Not only in appearance—they both share a dark, masculine beauty—but in his ability to handle the spotlight and draw people in. If he were ending with a sales pitch, I’m entirely certain that he would rake in a million tonight.
But there is no sales pitch. Tonight is a celebration, and after a few more words about the history of the project, Jackson invites the audience to settle in and enjoy the show.
The lights dim, the curtain parts, and I lean back in my seat as the music swells and the screen fills with motion and light. The camera rises in a magnificent shot that starts at the ground then climbs faster and faster, rising up the now-iconic smooth edge of the museum to ultimately flare out as blue sky and sun fill the frame.
The screen turns a blinding white that dissolves into a title sequence and then a close-up of Jackson, his hair ruffling in the wind and his jeans tight on well-muscled thighs as he leans over a table littered with blueprints. He is deep in conversation with another man, but their words are muffled beneath the precise, careful voice of the narrator.
I watch, mesmerized by the man on the screen. By the passion and precision of his movements. He is absorbed by his work, compelled by it. There is power in what he does. Majesty, even magic.
And the depth of emotion I see on his face makes my skin heat and my heart pound in my chest.
I have seen that same fire, that same determination. I have seen joy and rapture. I have held him close and felt his heat, and I have been burned by the intensity of this man.
My chest aches and my hands begin to hurt. I realize that I am clutching the armrests too tightly. More, I have been holding my breath.
Air, I think as I start to stand. I just need to get to the lobby. Maybe hit the ladies’ room and splash some cold water on my face.
But as I start to lever myself out of the seat, someone slips into the chair beside me.
I haven’t seen him—haven’t turned to face him—and yet I have no doubt. How could I when my skin already tingles simply from his proximity? When the scent of his cologne surrounds me, all spice and musk and smoke?
I close my eyes and hold myself half in and half out of the chair, suddenly unsure of where I am going and why.
One simple word, and yet it compels me. I draw another breath, nod, and then settle back into the upholstered theater chair. I turn toward him and find him focused on me. Shadows dance upon his face, and I swear that I could tumble into the brilliant blue of his eyes.
I start to speak, though I’m not at all sure what I’m going to say. Then he leans toward me and places his palm on my leg, so that the heel of his hand rests on the thin material of my dress, but the tips of his fingers graze my bare skin. Every nerve ending in my body seems clustered in that one area, sparkling and sizzling.
I’m desperately, painfully, aware of the contact, and I have to fight the urge to draw in a breath, to stiffen as my pulse pounds and a wild heat bursts through me. I don’t want to react to him; I don’t want to give anything away. And I damn sure can’t let go of the tight grip I have on control.
But he is leaning closer, the pressure increasing upon my thigh as his lips come within a whisper of my ear. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
I consider playing it coy, but there is no profit in that. Not to mention the fact that I’m not at all sure I could pull it off. Not now, when he’s touching me. When he’s thrown me so off-kilter. “I need to talk to you,” I say simply.
“Do you?” he asks, his voice as smooth and tempting as chocolate. “I’m fairly certain you don’t have an appointment.”
His finger moves slowly on my skin, back and forth, the motion so idle that he might be unaware of it. Except I know that’s bullshit. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Do I need an appointment to chat at a party?”
“Is that what we’re doing?” he asks as his finger strokes and teases. “Chatting?”
I feel my chest tighten and a thin panic rise. “Please, Jackson.”
“Outside.” I hope that he cannot hear the way my voice shakes. “Can we just go talk for a minute in the lobby?”
I try to rise, but he holds me down with a gentle but firm pressure on my leg. In the process, he manages to slide my hem up, revealing just a sliver more of bare skin. It is enough, however, to make me feel even more exposed. Even more vulnerable.
To make me remember the way his hands felt when he was touching me without anger or pretense.
I swallow as a wave of longing and regret breaks over me. “Jackson—“
“You’re so determined to talk, then talk here.” His voice hasn’t lost the velvet, but there is steel under it now.
“We’ll bother everyone around us,” I whisper, determined to regain my equilibrium.
His brows rise, and I see amusement dance at the corner of his mouth. “Will we?” His hand eases higher, pushing my skirt up with the motion. “I didn’t think our … conversation … would be quite that loud.”
“Stop.” I close my hand hard over his, preventing him from gaining even another millimeter.
“Because I said so, dammit.”
“I meant why do you need to talk to me,” he clarifies. “But the same applies.” He eases his hand higher, pushing my skirt up inch by excruciating inch. “Tell me why you say I should stop. Because you don’t want me to touch you? Because you don’t want me to slide my hand just a little bit higher? Because you don’t want my fingertips to stroke your panties and find you wet and hot?”
My mouth is dry, my body burning. And—damn me all to hell—he is right. I am desperately wet, my thighs hot and my sex throbbing.
“Or maybe it’s because you do want me to keep going? Because you can imagine—can remember—the way my finger feels inside you, teasing you, stroking your clit. Are you wet now, princess?” he asks, his voice as gentle as the finger that still skims along my thigh.
“Are you hot and needy and silently begging me to touch you, to slide my finger over your slick, wet heat? Is that what you want? Come on, sweetheart, you can tell me. Don’t you want me to take you there? To take you higher and higher until you tremble in my hand as the orgasm rocks you? Because I think you do. I think you want it so bad you can taste it.”
I close my eyes, determined not to let him see the truth of his words on my face. “Stop it,” I repeat. “You can’t—“
“The hell I can’t.” The soft sensuality in his tone has vanished, replaced by harsh accusation. “Do you think I haven’t watched you tonight? Do you think I didn’t see the way you’ve looked at me? We both know you still want me, and we both know that pisses you off. So tell me, Sylvia. I want to hear it. I want you to say it out loud.”
But there is no way in hell that I am conceding. Because while it may be true—God help me, I do want him, and that does piss me off—I don’t want what comes after. The panic and wariness. The tightness and fear. That horrible sense that everything around me is spinning out of control, and that no matter how hard I try to hold it together, I’ll inevitably get ripped apart.
“Tell me,” he repeats, his words heavy with five years worth of hurt and anger. “And then I’ll listen to what you have to say.”
I wince as something like guilt crashes over me. But I push it aside even as I shove his hand away and bolt up out of the chair. “Fuck you,” I snap, ignoring the low-pitched “Sssshhhh” from down the row.
I stumble up the aisle, then practically slam myself against the door, not even taking a breath until I am safely in the lobby.
I lean against the wall and tell myself to get my shit together. I haven’t quite managed that task when the door opens and Jackson strides out and heads straight toward me. I think I must flinch, because I see his jaw tighten, and he comes no closer.
“Not exactly the sweet words I was looking for,” he says wryly. “But good enough.”
“Just leave me the hell alone,” I say.
“I can do that.” His tone is now all business. “Or you can tell me what you want to talk about.”
I blink, a little whiplashed by his sudden change in tone. “A job,” I manage to say, even as my shoulders sag with both relief and, though I hate to admit it, a touch of disappointment. I push the latter firmly away—there is no room for anything but business between Jackson and me, and even imagining there might be more is a recipe for heartache.
His eyes stay fixed on mine, then he nods briskly. “All right. I’m listening.”
I stand straighter, sliding into business-mode and relishing the sense of being back in control. “It’s for Stark International,” I say. “And before you tell me that you already turned down the Bahamas resort, I’d like you to hear me out.”
I take his silence as acquiescence and continue, giving him the full rundown of the project from inception to the horrific news that Glau has not only melted down, but pulled out.
“Miss America got slammed on Facebook, and now the runner-up has the crown?”
“No,” I say firmly. “This isn’t about bringing in the runner-up. It’s about making this resort the best that it can be.”
“Really?” His gaze skims over me, as sensual as a slow caress. “I don’t recall being approached when the project was initiated.”
“You were tied up with the job in Dubai.”
“Was I?” he says, as if that commission was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. “So this has nothing to do with the fact that your precious resort is in more trouble than you’ve let on?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Problems with the FAA, Sylvia. Utility permitting. Environmental groups. Do you want me to go on?”
“Everything you’ve listed is being handled,” I say, which is technically accurate. Apparently there is a lot of red tape to cut through in order to install even a small landing strip on a tiny island. And he’s right about the environmental groups, too. Apparently the island is a habitat for a rare species of cave crickets, and negotiating that possible land mine was as fraught with destructive potential as disarming a nuclear bomb.
But what really concerns me is how he’s heard about those problems. Because we’ve kept a tight lid on each and every one of them.
I fight the urge to drag my fingers through my hair out of sheer frustration, and tell myself not to worry about that right now. “Dammit, Jackson, the bottom line is that it’s a great opportunity.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t.” He holds out his hand. “Come with me.”
I glance at his hand, but I don’t take it. After a moment, he lowers it, and the shadow I see in his eyes comes very close to breaking me.
He says nothing else, but turns and starts walking. I follow him in silence all the way back to the ballroom and then into a hallway that I hadn’t entered before. “Won’t they miss you?”
“This is Hollywood. They’re used to putting on a spin when the talent goes missing.” He grins, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a way I find both disarming and very, very sexy. “Besides, the after-party is here. Eventually, whoever needs me will find me.”
I nod, then take the opportunity to look around. The hallway is wide with white walls rising to a low ceiling. The floor is brushed concrete, and it’s broken up by several geometric, flat-sided pillars spaced down the length.
Dozens of framed black and white photographs line the walls, and as we walk we pass Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, and countless other stars of some of my favorite movies.
But it is not those images that Jackson wants me to see. Instead, he takes me to the first pillar and the full color photograph that hangs there. It is of the Winn Building in Manhattan, a glass and steel skyscraper that rises like royalty over the city, with so much retail, office, and living spaces that it is practically a city unto itself.
Jackson says nothing as we look at the image, and I estimate that a full minute passes before we move to the next pillar and the framed image of the new Salzburg Opera House, with its curved facade that seems to flow like music in perfect harmony with the mountains that frame it.
The last photograph is a not of a commercial project, but of a house in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s burnished exterior blends with the stone and rock, and though the single story residence is obviously both new and state of the art, it flows over the landscape with the kind of bold confidence that suggests it rose fully formed from the mountains that bore it.
“What do you know about these?”
I tell him, giving him the details that he already knows. How the Santa Fe getaway for a well-known philanthropist finally earned him the recognition he deserved and jump-started his architectural career. How the opera house thrust him into the design-build arena when he branched out from strict design work to the full spectrum of property development. And how the Winn Building was a major victory for Steele Development, as it marked his company’s foray into the lucrative New York market, and resulted in the first project in which he retained an ownership interest.
I don’t mention the murder and suicide that took place at the Santa Fe house not long after it was completed. It doesn’t seem relevant and, frankly, I’m afraid that kind of gossip might spoil whatever progress we’re making.
Nor do I mention that the rental income from a properly like the Winn Building must have at least quadrupled Jackson’s net worth overnight. But we both know that I am aware. You can’t work for a man like Damien Stark for all these years and not gain some understanding of the income potential for the kind of projects Jackson now commands.
In other words, Jackson doesn’t need the income from The Resort at Cortez. And considering how fast his star is ascending with the documentary and the possibility of a feature film, he doesn’t even need the publicity.
All I have to offer is the challenge. I can only hope that will be enough.
I turn so that I am facing him, my back now to the pillar. “So? How did I do?”
“Not bad. You’ve been watching my career.”
“No,” I say, the lie coming easily. “But I’m good at my job. And that means I know who I’m recruiting.”
“Recruiting,” he repeats. He takes a single step toward me.
“Yes.” The word is firm, and I am proud of how steady I feel.
He steps closer, reducing the distance between us to mere inches. I tilt my head back. Even with me in heels, he is a head taller than me, and right then I cannot help but feel small. Vulnerable.
I push that down, though, and meet his eyes, hoping mine show ice and determination.
“Do you remember Atlanta?”
His words are like a slap, and despite all my resolve, I step backward, only to be foiled by the pillar behind me. “I—of course I do.” I lick my lips. “Jackson, I’m sorry about the past. But this isn’t—“
“No,” he says, holding up a finger to silence me. “Do you remember before? Before you tore it all apart. Do you remember the way it felt when I touched you?”
My throat has gone completely dry, and I can feel small beads of sweat at the nape of my neck.
He steps closer, ignoring me. “Tell me, Sylvia. And be honest, because I swear I’ll know if you’re lying.” His voice is low, seductive, and utterly commanding. “Do you remember?”
I shake my head, but that isn’t enough to push away the truth. Of course I remember. I remember every a laugh, every touch, every breath. I remember every word of every conversation, the taste of every meal. I remember the glorious sensation of his hands upon me and his cock inside me.
But I also remember when the panic set in. When I started to drown, and no matter how hard I fought to keep afloat I kept getting pulled down into the swirling waters of cold fear and harsh memories.
I’d ended it because I had to. Because the only way I could survive was to destroy everything.
Because the only way I could breathe was to push him away.
For that matter, I’m having a little trouble breathing right now.
His fingertip hooks under my chin and he tilts my head up so that I am staring deep into his eyes.
“Do you remember?” he repeats.
I say nothing.
“And at the end,” he persists. “Do you remember what you asked me in Atlanta?”
I lick my dry lips, then nod.
Whatever you need, baby, I promise. You only have to ask.
Jackson, I—I need you to leave me. I need you to walk away and to never look back.
The memory pounds like red neon inside my head.
“Tell me,” he repeats.
“I asked you to leave.” I say the words simply, as if every syllable isn’t ripping me to shreds.
“And did I?” His voice is still even, still calm, but there is no hiding the tension that backs each and every word. “Did I not do exactly what you asked? Did I not walk away even though it just about killed me?”
It killed me, too. I want to shout the words at him, but I don’t. I can’t, because that would only make him suffer more, and after everything I’ve done to him, I can’t add that burden. So all I do is nod.
“Yes.” My voice sounds lost. Hollow. “You did.”
He leans closer, placing one hand on the pillar just over my shoulder. He is at an angle, his face so close I can smell whiskey on his breath. “So what exactly do you want from me now?” He strokes his free hand down my bare arm until he reaches my hand. He twines his fingers with mine and pulls me hard against him.
I gasp and try to ease backward, but it’s not possible. He has moved his palm from the pillar to my lower back. He holds me close, so tight that I am breathless, lost in the feel of him and, yes, in the erotic sensation of his erection, unmistakable against my abdomen.
“Are you offering me a job,” he continues, ignoring my protest. “Are you offering me you? Are you offering to bring back everything you killed when you pushed me away?”
He releases my hand. “Or are you offering me this?” he asks, as he brushes his fingertip over my lower lip, so softly and gently that I have to fight not to gasp with pleasure. “Or maybe this?” he asks as his hand moves lower, his palm grazing over my breast.
My nipple tightens as my skin prickles with need. I have to focus on breathing, on not letting my knees give out.
Jackson takes no pity on me. Instead, he gently rubs circles on my breast, taunting and teasing even as his words continue to flow over me. “Surely you remember how it felt,” he presses. “You in my arms. Your release. That expression of ecstasy etched on your face. The surrender I felt in your body.”
“Don’t.” That single word is a cry. A plea.
“Don’t?” His hand slides down again, his fingers twining with mine once more. “But I have to. So tell me, Sylvia. Because I need to know. What exactly are you offering me?”
My eyes sting, and I squeeze them shut, wishing for the release of tears but they just won’t come. “Just the job,” I finally say. I take a deep breath and open my eyes to face him. “Nothing has changed, Jackson. We can’t…” I shake my head, letting my words trail away.
He holds my gaze. The heat building in the space between us is so intense that I swear I can see the molecules spinning.
Slowly, he releases his grip on my hand. He steps back and I feel cold when he lifts his other hand from the small of my back. “You’re right,” he says. “We can’t.”
And that is it. Two little words, and then he turns away from me and walks down the hall. I stare after him, breathing hard, watching until he disappears into the shadows of the larger room.
He never once looks back.
Amazon Fr http://amzn.to/1E6JBxh
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