Awaken to Pleasure(4)

By: Nalini Singh

“It’s not the kind of environment I want to be in.”

Stopping at a red light, he faced her. “Environment?”

She shrugged, her cheeks a little pink. “Excess, glamour, money, money, money.”

He’d always known that she’d fight against coming into his world. “What about art?”

“What about it?” she scoffed.

He smiled and accelerated with care when the light turned green. “Poor Taylor. Disillusioned so young.”

“Don’t patronize me.” The order was sharp.

She’d been the only one of his secretaries who’d given him backchat. He’d offered her a permanent position after her contract ended, but she’d been adamant in her desire to leave. He’d wanted her more than he’d craved anything in his life, but honor had forced him to let her go, before he stole both her youth and her innocence. Yet, he’d kept waiting for her to walk back through the door. The memory made his voice curt. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

He shrugged. “What can I say? For a kid, you’re very cynical.” At thirty-two, he was only eight years her senior, but in his heart, he was decades too old.

Taylor’s temper started to simmer. Why did Jackson always treat her like a child? “I’m not a kid!” Her feelings around him were definitely those of an adult.

His big body tended to do things to her insides that scared her, because she had no idea what to do to feed those wild, hot feelings. With her history, she could never, ever allow herself to love a man, but the minute she’d met Jackson Santorini, she’d learned that she couldn’t stop herself from lusting after this particular male.

A deep chuckle heated both her cheeks and her temper. “Next to me, you’re a baby.”

“Crap.” She was so furious that she could barely get the single word out.

“Crap?” He was laughing at her again, in that superior masculine way of his that made her want to scream.

“Age makes no difference to the person you become once you’re an adult.” She needed him to accept her as a woman, though she shied away from the implications of that need.

“Of course it does.” His response was infuriatingly calm. “More experience, more life lived.”

“More years doesn’t necessarily mean more experience!”

His sardonic look dared her to prove it.

She did, goaded beyond endurance. “I’m bringing up a child. Can you say the same?”

“No.” His response was so cold that the inside of the car suddenly felt like a freezer.

It was clear that she’d offended him deeply with her careless words. Not for the first time, she wondered if his childless marriage had been his choice. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s true.” An emotionless response.

She bit her lip, debating whether to continue. “Yes. But so soon after Bonnie’s death…I shouldn’t have said it. I wasn’t thinking.”

It was her own emotional anguish over the possibility of losing custody of Nick to her stepfather, Lance, that had made her so reckless. Even tonight’s desperate attempt to forget her fears for a few hours had ended in a nightmare. Except for being picked up by Jackson, her day had been sheer hell. And now, she’d made him angry. Somehow, that was the worst feeling of all.

“It’s been twelve months since Bonnie overdosed.” Jackson knew his voice was hard, but so had been surviving the losses a year ago. “You know our marriage was finished long before then. Hell, the whole world knew.”

They’d been married, but not to each other. He’d had his work and for a brief glittering moment of pure happiness, Taylor’s smile. Bonnie had had drugs. They hadn’t even slept together for over two years, except for that one fateful time four months before her death.

She’d been so lovely that day, a shimmering memory of the girl he’d wed, before news of her father’s death had stolen her joy. He’d long since learned that that girl had been a mirage, but when she’d turned to him for comfort, he hadn’t been able to deny her. Not when grief had ripped apart the mask of sophistication that had become her face.

And they’d created a child.

Whom Bonnie had murdered when she’d taken her life with a cocktail of drugs. If she hadn’t, he might have been a parent, too, able to refute Taylor’s claim. He could still feel the knives that had sliced through his soul when the autopsy had revealed her to be pregnant. Further tests had proven that the child had been his flesh and blood.

But, even that incredible grief hadn’t compared to his rage at discovering that Bonnie had known of the tiny life growing inside of her. She’d known that his child was in her womb when she’d taken her final lover, and she’d known that his child was in her womb when she’d ingested the fatal drug cocktail.