Aftershock / Page 12

Page 12


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Author: Sylvia Day


I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life being treated that way.


“Am I going to have to drag you out of there, too?” Jax said, opening the floating glass door and standing amid the steam that surged eagerly around his bared body.


“Go away,” I told him wearily, shutting off the taps. “I’m sleeping in the guest room tonight.”


His jaw tightened. His chest expanded on a deep, slow breath. “I...” He paused. “I’m sorry.”


Nodding, I pushed him back and stepped around him. “Thank you for that. I’m sorry, too. We both handled this badly.”


I shrugged into the terry-cloth robe hanging on a hook, then wrapped my hair up in a turban to wring it dry. “Goodnight, Jax.”


He followed me through the bedroom, grabbing me by the elbow when I approached the door to the hallway. “Don’t be like this. I said I’m sorry and I meant it.”


Stopping, I looked at him. “I know you did, and I meant it, too. But it doesn’t fix a fundamental problem we’re having with the way we communicate. We don’t talk about family. We don’t talk about work. We hang out together and fuck, which makes us more friends with benefits than anything, doesn’t it?”


He pulled me closer, stepping into me at the same time so that he was pressed up against me. “I love you, Gia. More than I’ve ever loved anything. You know that.”


I sighed. “And I love you enough that I couldn’t get over you, even after I thought you’d dumped me like trash. But that means you can hurt me real bad, Jax. I’m having a hard time living on the periphery of your life. And if being with you hurts worse than being without you, I’ve got to decide what’s the best thing for me to do.”


“You’re the center of my life.” His hands went to my shoulders. “There isn’t a moment that goes by when I’m not thinking about you.”


“That may be true, but you’ve got a unique ability to cut me off, and I’m not sure I can live with that.”


“You’re cutting me off now,” he accused. “You cut me off earlier tonight.”


“So once again, we’re both handling this badly. Maybe that’s a sign. Listen, I’ve got to get some sleep. We can talk about this tomorrow. Okay?”


He cupped my nape. “Sleep with me. I’ll keep my hands to myself if that’s what you want.”


I ached to do what he asked, but I also worried that we’d just be putting a Band-Aid on something that needed a lot more work. “I want to sleep in the guest room.”


I pulled away and left the room, feeling his eyes on my back as he stepped out into the hallway after me. Surprisingly, I fell asleep quickly, despite having damp hair and a painfully tight chest.


Sometime during the night, I felt Jax slip into the bed with me. I rolled to my side, hugged my pillow, and went back to sleep.


8


IT WAS A relief to arrive at work the next day.


I woke up next to a brooding and uncommunicative Jax. The rest of our shared morning had been thick with tension. On the walk to the subway, I texted my dad, asking him to call me when he could, then I scrolled through my email. Adrenaline surged through me when I saw Deanna’s name. I’d nearly forgotten about the favor I had asked of her. Once reminded, I couldn’t help but hope for news.


“Please have something for me,” I muttered to myself as I arrived at my station and hurried up the steps to reach the street. I was damned near desperate to have something—anything—that would give me insight into the man I loved.


Unfortunately, her email only read to call her, and I reached Deanna’s voice mail when I tried. I didn’t hear back from her before I reached Savor, where I had to silence my smartphone and tuck it away.


“Good morning,” I greeted Lei when she arrived.


“Good morning.” She tilted her head to the side. “Everything all right?”


I blinked, startled by the question. “Everything’s great.”


She hesitated, then said, “Come into my office.”


I followed her, taking a deep breath in preparation for whatever might be coming my way.


Lei bypassed her desk and settled into one of the gray club chairs in the seating area, looking younger with her hair hanging straight and loose, even with the wicked cool streak of silver. She waited until I took the matching chair before beginning. “Things have been...strained between us the last few weeks. I really regret that.”


The tension left my shoulders. “I do, too.”


“I’m concerned for you...and I have my reservations about Jackson...but really—” she swiveled her chair to face me directly “—the problem is with me. I’m projecting my own experience onto you.”


“You mean Ian.”


Her red mouth curved without humor. “It must be obvious that I loved him. He was my whole world. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you that he’d never betray me. That he didn’t have it in him. I would’ve told you he loved me too much to do anything like that.”


“What happened?” I had never broached the subject before, but now that she’d opened the door, I was dying to know what had helped shaped my boss into the woman she was today.


“We were working on a deal. The negotiations had been tough, but I had the advantage and Ian let me run with it.” A thoughtful wrinkle appeared on her otherwise smooth forehead. “Unfortunately, sometimes I get so focused on the hunt itself that I forget to pay attention to my prey.”


She looked out the windows at the Manhattan skyline. “I was too confident and I pushed for too much without giving enough in return. Worse, I made the man on the other side of the negotiating table feel insignificant and powerless. Somewhere along the way, he decided he’d do anything to put me in my place.”


“What place?”


“Behind Ian, instead of beside him. I think Bruce was insulted that Ian had him doing business with me. I don’t think he ever saw me as Ian’s partner, just Ian’s piece of ass, so that’s what he used against us.”


“How?”


“He kept setting up recurring meetings with me, telling me he needed clarification on different points or wanted to discuss alternatives. We met in the restaurants of the hotels he was staying in at the time, just as you and I did with the Williams twins at the Four Seasons. It wasn’t until later that I understood he’d been creating a paper trail to prove he and I had been having an affair.”


“Oh, Lei.” I felt a little of her remembered suffering; her tone of voice carried so much pain. “What did you do?”


“Nothing, and maybe that was the wrong choice. Ian is prone to jealousy, so he’s especially vulnerable in that regard. I refused to confirm or deny his accusations because I was so hurt that he’d given them any credence at all. I told him to figure it out for himself, and apparently I was tried and convicted.”


“Jeez. I’m sorry.”


She shrugged off my sympathy, but gave me a rueful smile. “It’s been over a long time now.”


I drummed my fingers on the armrests of my chair as I warred with myself about discussing Jax with someone who didn’t trust him. I valued Lei’s opinion, but it wasn’t objective when it came to Jackson Rutledge.


In the end, though, I told her because of her bias. I wanted an extreme, worst-case-scenario opinion.


Lei sat forward as I spoke, and by the time I finished, she’d set her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands. “So he’s withholding information from you. People keep secrets for two main reasons—to protect themselves or to protect someone else. Do you have any thoughts about which direction Jackson is moving in?”


“I’m not sure. With everything else we’ve faced, I could see him trying to...shield me from something. But this... I can’t help feeling like he didn’t want me to know my family was being used to further a Rutledge agenda.”


“If that’s the case, it probably won’t be the last time. How do you feel about that?”


“Pissed. How can he say he loves me, and then do things that I have a problem with?”


“That’s a question you have to ask him. Sooner rather than later.”


Lei had just reaffirmed what I already knew, but it was still valuable to have my position confirmed.


Now I just had to prepare myself for what I’d do once I got the answer.


* * *


When my lunch break rolled around, I checked my smartphone and saw I’d missed a callback from Deanna. I headed to one of Savor’s conference rooms for privacy, passing LaConnie, who was arranging a new display of branded spices and seasonings on the shelf behind her reception desk.


She waved as I passed, and I complimented her on the kick-ass red pantsuit she was wearing.


I was smiling when I entered the same conference room where I’d taken Jax when he visited Savor. That memory helped alleviate some of the nervous anticipation I felt when I dialed Deanna’s number.


“Gianna,” she greeted me. “Glad we got past the game of phone tag.”


“Me, too. How are you?”


“Excellent. Hang on. Let me move somewhere more quiet.” A moment later, the background noise of multiple people talking at once disappeared. “So I looked into the Rutledges, focusing on Leslie Rutledge as you suggested. You’ve got great instincts—I hit a gold mine with that one.”


“Oh?” A shiver of unease slid down my spine.


“The family had her committed to a sanitarium for a few months. It was after she was released that she disappeared from public view. There were some rumors back then, nothing concrete, but now I’ve got a reliable source.”


My gut twisted. I started pacing.


“I can’t confirm what kind of mental illness she had,” Deanna went on, “but the real story here is that she was expendable. She had a problem and they packed her up, out of sight.”


“You don’t know that!” I thought of the photos of Leslie in Jax’s living room. He hadn’t forgotten her.


“Uh, yeah. I do. Just a minute.” The receiver was muffled, then, “Anyway. More details will emerge after the story breaks. They always do.”


I straightened, panicked. “What do you mean ‘after the story breaks’?”


“It’s news and about to be public knowledge.”


“That wasn’t the deal!”


“What deal?” Deanna shot back. “We didn’t have one beyond you paying me for my time, which I won’t be collecting on because this is going to pay off in other ways.”


“You can’t run this story!” I hissed, circling the conference table with angry strides.


“It’s already done, Gianna. Your name isn’t mentioned, so don’t worry about that. Listen, I’ve got to go. I just wanted to give you a head’s up and say thanks. Take care, all right?”


She hung up and my smartphone disconnected before I’d even lowered the phone from my ear.


* * *


I left the conference room in a rage, so pissed I could hardly see straight. I was as furious with myself as I was with Deanna. How could I not have foreseen the possibility that she’d use the information she found?


“Your man knows how to treat you right,” LaConnie said as I passed her again. “I just set another delivery on your desk.”


Cringing inwardly, I felt the weight of guilt on my shoulders. The sight of pure white lilies next to my phone damn near closed off my throat.


I plucked off the attached card.


I’m waving the white flag of surrender.


I love you, baby. We’ll talk tonight.


Jax had signed the card, but his signature blurred amid my anxious tears.


Worse than the violation of his privacy, I feared that such personal revelations about his mother would hurt him deeply. Her pictures in the living room of our home told me he had cared for her, but his reluctance to talk about her suggested the topic was painful.


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