Home > Destroyed With You (Stark Security #5)

Destroyed With You (Stark Security #5)
Author: J. Kenner

Prologue

 

 

I never meant to hurt him.

I never wanted to deceive him.

I regret the past every day, but I’ve learned to live with remorse. With loss.

I’ve learned to live in the dark.

Mostly, I’ve learned to live without love.

Now, I hold tight to the memory of the days we had together. I hug them close, soaking in the sweet brilliance of those long-ago moments. Shared glances. Stolen kisses. Long, sunny afternoons in bed, my skin hot and slick against his.

I close my eyes and let myself go back. I ignore the pain. The loss. The grief. I cling to those moments because they are all I have. All I can ever have.

I won’t ever be with him again. I know that.

Even if he wanted me—and, dear God, why would he?—I couldn’t say yes.

He was in love with a woman who didn’t exist. His Linda, he’d called me, but he’d been talking to a ghost. I might be flesh and blood, but I’m not real. I’m not sure I ever have been.

He’s the only man who’s ever made me feel whole, but I can’t be with him.

Even if I had the courage to tell him my secrets, it wouldn’t matter. All he would see is a woman he never knew. A woman he could never love.

Everything that had once been between us would evaporate in that moment, and where would I be then?

Still alone, but with my memories torn apart and my fantasies shattered.

At least now I can cling to the past. I can pull it out and polish it, making it shine in my memories. I can hug it hard and wish that things could have been different.

That, though, is impossible.

I can’t be anything other than the woman I am.

And the stone cold truth is simple. At the end of the day, I’m not the woman he loves.

I never really was.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

“And he really didn’t tell you anything?” Emma leaned against Old Blue, Winston Starr’s ancient Ford pickup.

He was Colonel Anderson Seagrave of the Sensitive Operations Command, an elite intelligence branch of the National Security Council known colloquially as the SOC. Seagrave’s call had interrupted Winston while he was celebrating with his friends at Emma’s sister’s engagement party.

“All he said was that we needed to meet,” Winston told her.

The dark night air hung thick around them. A light breeze off the ocean carried cool air toward them, but Winston didn’t notice. On the contrary, he was hot. Burning from within. His mind and senses on overdrive as he turned all the possibilities over in his head, reaching one inevitable conclusion.

“But he must have mentioned Texas,” she prompted. “After the call, you told me you’re going back to Texas.”

Winston nodded. “Tomorrow. Apparently, he’ll tell me the rest when I see him tonight.”

“You,” Emma stressed, her hazel eyes narrowing. “Not us.”

“Just me.”

“You don’t answer to Seagrave anymore,” Emma pointed out. Once upon a time, Winston and Emma had been SOC operatives, but those days were long gone. Now they were both in the private sector, working for the Stark Security Agency, an elite organization founded by billionaire Damien Stark after the kidnapping of his youngest daughter.

“No, ma’am,” Winston drawled. “I don’t.”

Emma scowled up at him, definitely not fooled by his supposedly casual demeanor. “If he’s sending you alone, it’s not about the Texas operation. By the end, our missions overlapped too much. He’d send both of us if there were lingering threads.”

She frowned, then sucked in a breath as she locked eyes with him. “Linda,” she said, her tone managing to be both hard and sympathetic. “It must be something to do with Linda.”

His throat tightened at the sound of his wife’s name, and he slid his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking. He missed her. Even after more than four years he missed her with an intensity that bordered on pain. No, it was pain. A deep, potent ache that still lingered. Long after gunshots would have healed or bones knitted, he still felt it. The loss. The guilt. The stabs into his heart. The claws ripping at the fabric of his life.

His blood had drained away the night he’d lost her, and he’d been a hollow shell ever since. She’d been an innocent, caught up in something she knew nothing about.

It should have been him, dammit. If there was any true justice in the universe, it should have been him they’d killed that night.

But here he was, hale and hearty, at least on the outside. On the inside, though … well, inside, he was as dead as she was.

He went through the motions, sure. Did his job. Laughed with his friends. But he wasn’t a whole man. Not anymore. Probably never again.

As if taunting him, the sound of laughter drifted on the breeze. He glanced at the house. Emma’s little bungalow was all lit up, and inside their friends continued to drink and laugh. Her sister and Quincy were getting married, after all. Proof positive that life went on.

Winston told himself that was a good thing.

Emma was waiting for him to answer, and he forced a casual shrug. “Might be somethin’ else. Nothing to do with Linda at all.” He heard the West Texas twang in his voice and wanted to swallow the words. He’d mostly gotten rid of the accent, but it tended to become more prominent when he was upset or confused. Or drunk.

He was a bit of all three tonight.

“Bullshit,” Emma said. “You don’t believe that any more than I do. You’ve made it perfectly clear you weren’t ever going back to Texas, much less to Hades,” she added, referring to the aptly named county seat where he’d served as sheriff. “He knows that. He wouldn’t send you back unless it was not only important, but important to you.”

Winston drew a breath, trying not to feel numb inside as he lifted his head to meet his friend and sometimes partner’s eyes. “It may be nothing. Might not even be Hades.”

She shook her head, the action freeing a lock of red hair from where she’d pulled it back into a messy ponytail. He could practically see the wheels turning behind those hazel eyes as she said, “I’m right. You know it. I know it. He called you at night on a weekend. This isn’t a casual thing. There’s a reason, and we both know what that reason is. And if you’re going to Texas, then I’m going with you.”

“No.”

He could see her stiffen. Could practically hear the protest before it left her lips. “Dammit, Starr. Don’t do this to yourself. Remember me? I’m the one who knows you. I’m the one who was there. And I’m the one who’s going to stand by you and remind you that it wasn’t your goddamn fault.”

“Emma, don’t even—”

She held up a hand to cut off his words. “No. No. If you’re going back there—if you’re going to dredge it all up again—then you’ll need a friend.”

“Dredge it up?” He shook his head. “Emma, darlin’, I won’t be dredging anything up. It never went down in the first place.”

He watched the emotions play over her face, and for a moment, he pitied her. Emma Tucker was used to getting her own way, being in command. Getting told no didn’t sit well with her.

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