Authors: Emily Cooper
I open my eyes and blink into the light, the curtains partly pulled open to allow a sliver of sunlight to spill into the room.
Jackson stands barefoot over by the window with only grey track pants on, the contours of his bare back daring me to be seduced all over again.
My eyes wander over the gentle V-shape that comes to a taper where his waist meets his pant line, the curve of his perfectly shaped and supple ass sitting idly in the cotton.
He seems to be staring out at the sea whose white-tipped waves I can now barely hear.
The hurricane has passed.
“Hey,” I utter softly, slowly getting up from the bed to go and stand beside him.
I run both hands along the lithe muscles of his right arm, the skin smooth yet taut under my palms, only to find him flinch and turn sharply away from the window.
“Sorry, did I startle you?” I ask, gazing up into his eyes that look as fragile as spun glass.
“No,” he replies vaguely, the whisper of a lie.
He leans down and gives me a peck on the cheek, a succession of butterflies rapidly swarming in my stomach.
Seriously, Claire? Butterflies? Remember why you’re here! The story.
“How did you sleep?” he asks with a warm smile, his temperament changing completely.
“Like a log,” I bray with a yawn and a stretch, pretending I haven’t noticed the odd change in him.
He chuckles at my answer. “Good to hear it.”
Reaching up on tiptoes I kiss his shoulder enticingly, the journalist in me reawakening.
“I think after last night’s efforts I deserve a reward, don’t you?” I muse at him.
“Is that so?” he queries, eyeing me suspiciously. “And pray tell what does this reward have to be?”
I hesitate before asking it.
The reporter in me is battling with a conscience, a moral tug of war ensuing that I’m not sure my conscience can win.
The story means more to me than a mere one nightstand with a billionaire, a billionaire who despite displaying some fragility still owes me for my time.
After all, he’s the one who invited me here to do the interview in the first place.
Surely he understands that I need to get what I came for.
So I let the words float lightly out of my mouth, “Why did you close your mines, Jackson?”
I watch the look of disappoint stain his face. He’d been expecting me to say something else.
“Relentless little vixen, aren’t you?” he says drolly, breaking away from me to stride towards the door.
But he cuts me off instantly.
“Just come and get some breakfast,” he orders. “The power is back on, and I make a mean set of pancakes.”
For about the hundredth time in less than twenty-four hours, I honestly can’t tell whether he’s angry or merely amused by me.
He really is a case of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde complex if I ever saw one.
The kitchen smells of flour and sizzling butter, with a selection of bacon, sliced banana and maple syrup on the breakfast block in the middle of what has to be, at the very least, a minimum 50,000-dollar stainless steel kitchen.
“It smells amazing in here,” I exclaim, taking a seat. “I’ve never had Canadian pancakes before.”
“You’re kidding?” Jackson says pompously, like it’s one of the craziest things he’s ever heard. “Canadian pancakes are the bomb diggity!”
The bomb diggity
?” I repeat, looking at him like he’s a preschooler. “How old are you, like 5?”
“Sure. Why not?” comes the satirical answer, which I loosely pay a smile to; even when he’s being sarcastic I still can’t help but find him kind of endearing.
But that has to be the sex talking though, right?
We’ve been intimate now.
We’ve seen each other in all our pride and glory.
Barriers have been broken.
Professional barriers…and others…
“The journalist smiles. Wonders will never cease!” Jackson cries out, turning around from the stove to wink at me.
“Ha ha. Very funny,” I say dryly, checking out the curvature of his ass once he’s turned back around to continue frying the pancakes.
When he finally brings them over and sits down opposite me, I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt about what I’d asked him back in the bedroom.
“I’m sorry about before,” I tell him, “It’s just you flew me out here for an interview about the mines, and so far you haven’t said anything about it.”
He pours the maple syrup over his plate of steaming hot cakes, denying me all eye contact.
What is he playing at?
“You’ll get your interview, Claire. Don’t worry,” he finally says with a solid swallow.
But when will I exactly?
I’m on the cusp of asking, and yet once again can’t find the nerve to.
The towering billionaire has a strange power over me, and it’s not just due to his striking good looks and athletically toned body.
It’s deeper than that, deeper than the mask he’s hiding behind, a sadness there that seems to be locked away in a dark sandbox that I’m desperate to open.
Something tells me that the woes he spoke of yesterday and the violence depicted in his paintings are linked to his secrets…
Ten minutes passes and we still haven’t said another word to each other, eating our pancakes in silence.
When we both finish them I decide to break the awkwardness and go to clear the table, only to have Jackson’s arm fling out and stop me.
He speaks in a chilling tone that seizes my complete attention;
“It was a stinking hot day when I got the call, which was normal for that time of year. Summer in Africa is, needless to say, awful if you’re not used to it. I was in my bungalow not far from one of the mine sites in Zimbabwe. The loud crash came a minute before the call did. When I answered the phone I already knew what was I was going to hear,” he pauses to take a breath, looking up at me with watering eyes.
“Three hundred people,” he whispers, his forehead moving pensively like he’s seeing something that I can’t. “Three hundred people died on my watch that day, Claire.”
I feel the goosebumps stipple on my skin, gazing over at Jackson like he’s a murderer and casualty all in one fold.
“Why did the mine collapse?’ I ask, keeping my voice steady.
“The structural engineers cut costs. Their design wasn’t sturdy enough to support the work we were doing in there. I didn’t know my company’s managerial staff had approved the cheaper materials. I was too wrapped up with investing in a third mine site further into the jungle and…I…just…”
He buries his face in his hands, trying to hold back the sobs of a broken man.
I’m not sure how to respond to all this.
I feel like I’m on the edge of a precipice.
Do I jump back into reporter mode, short and sharp like I’d always planned it and play on his vulnerability to get the story no matter what?
Or do I stay on the precipice and go with a more boring interview, where Jackson doesn’t get implicated in the deaths of 300 workers, and I head back to New York knowing there’s a demotion waiting for me.
My dreams of career advancement obliterated.
“It wasn’t your fault, Jackson,” I eventually sigh, reaching out to take his hand.
In only a few minutes he’s managed to reverse my entire opinion of him, an opinion that has had two long years of hate attached to it.
How could I have misjudged him so severely?
“I may not have approved those cheap materials, but it still happened under my jurisdiction,” he states disdainfully. “I’m to blame. I’m responsible for all those bodies. I destroyed families.”
I give him a moment before I press him further.
The last thing I want to happen is for him to go and crack on me.
Billionaire recluse declared insane after flighty blonde reporter visits mansion...
ha, what a headline that would be!
“How did you manage to keep it out of the media?” I ask carefully, deciding that the only way I can know for sure which angle to write the story in is to hear the rest of it first.
“I paid off everyone…the survivors, the employees, and the families of the workers who died.”
“And the families weren’t angry? They just settled on a figure you gave them?” I add assertively, wishing I had my notepad in front of me.
Despite my struggling conscience Hank and Sophia were right; I’m literally sitting in the nucleus of a cash cow right now.
Jackson observes me somewhat peculiarly; the look on his face promoting the notion that I’ve asked a rather ludicrous question.
“Africa is a very different place to here. Do you have any idea how much even one hundred American dollars would mean for those miners families? Before I bought the mines the workers could barely feed their families. Some months they were on the brink of starvation, malnourished and barely clothed. They were desperate and willing to do anything for some money. That is the real Africa, Claire. The one that we western folk all too easily turn a blind eye too,” he scorns.
But he’s preaching to the choir.
I already know all that.
It’s been a part of my job as a journalist to learn about it.
It’s obvious from Jackson’s countenance that he is not only ashamed of himself, but also ashamed of all the rich nations in the world who know what goes on and yet do nothing to help.
“I covered it up,” he continues. “I kept it out of the tabloids and with complete radio silence. I just wanted to forget about it, so I decided to keep to myself and stay away from people. I couldn’t harm anyone then.”
“But, Jackson, you can’t stay cooped up in this mansion either, no matter how luxurious it is. It’s not healthy. It’ll drive you mad,” I protest, feeling an ache in my heart for how broken this once formidable billionaire now looks.
“It’s already driven me mad,” he chuckles shrewdly, gesturing to one of his paintings hanging on the wall above us. “I just hide it in my art, that’s all.”
“You need to come back to society. If the world knows your story, I’m sure they’ll forgive you. You’re not to blame for what happened. You may have owned the mines and employed those dubious engineers and managers, but they deliberately didn’t tell you about the changes. They’re the ones who should be recluses, or better yet be sent to jail for their crimes,” I plead, the journalist in me wilting as I cup his face in my hands. “Come back to New York with me. Get away from here for a while.”
“I can’t,” he utters softly, pulling away. “I can’t trust people anymore. I’m better off here where I can’t hurt anybody. Alone.”
Jackson stands and goes to leave, stopping in mid pace to swing his head back to me.
“You should leave for the airport soon,” he states coldly. “The hurricane has passed. You’re free to go.”
He leaves me on the verge of tears and still stunned by his revelation about what happened in Zimbabwe.
But I’d be heartless to leave him like this, anyone would be.
I can’t believe he’s been living with such an sinister secret, and one that has obviously been eating away at his soul. I must convince him to let it all go, to let the world hear his side of the story and judge him accordingly.
The truth always has a way of getting out.
Eventually someone will speak, and when they do Jackson will most likely come off looking like the bad guy. As a serious and passionate journalist I can’t allow that to happen.
If Jackson isn’t willing to come clean about the mine collapse and the miners who were killed, then he will leave me with no choice but to expose the tragedy for him.
As I watch Jackson’s tall, dark figure walk uneasily along the cliff’s edge I can’t help but feel drawn to him.
I know he’s on the brink of snapping, the horror of Zimbabwe stagnantly burning in his mind.
But where does that leave the interview and the story?
When I walk out to meet him the wind swipes fiercely at my face, the curls of my long sandy hair flying across my eyes.
Jackson looks up at me briefly before turning his stare back to the sea, his faraway harlequin face thawing me all over again.
“You’re not thinking of jumping, are you?” I ask light heartedly, sweeping my hair to one side.
“No,” he larks. “Although I’d be a liar if said I hadn’t considered it once or twice in the past.”
Jackson shifts his feet uncomfortably, his milky brown eyes blazing into mine.
“Back in the kitchen…that was the first time I’ve ever told anyone about what happened in the mine,” he says. “I…strangely feel ok about it. Like it’s less of a burden somehow.”
I nod understandingly and rub his arm. “I’m glad. And that’s why you need to join the land of living again, Jackson. You need to tell the world your story and be respected for doing so. And take your paintings with you. Put them in a gallery and show them to people. Through them they will see your pain and what all those deaths have done to you.”
He looks back away and out to the sea, surveying it like he’s searching for an absolution within the currents.
“They’ve been my only solace here,” he murmurs. “Those paintings reflect the true rawness of me. I’ve never let anyone see them, except you. But even that was unintentional. I don’t think I can expose myself like that, Claire. Not to the whole world.”
“But that’s what you don’t get, by exposing yourself you’re revealing that you’re only human like the rest of us. You’re not the bad guy. You hurt and bleed and feel just like anyone else. This is your chance to clear your name and stop people speculating about your past. Your paintings and the emotions you’ve poured into them will be great for the story.”
“The story?” he asks sharply, his eyes constricting on me fiercely. “Of course…how foolish of me to forget about your damn story. That’s all you really care about, isn’t it? And here I was thinking maybe we...” his voice breaks off, shaking his head at the blank expression on my face.
But I wasn’t even thinking about the story really when I said all that.
I may not have known Jackson for long, but I’m beginning to really care for him, and more than I probably should.
A large part of me hurts to see him so despondent.
“Jackson, I don’t just care about the story. I said all that as a friend, albeit it’s a very new and quick friendship. But, now that you’ve brought it up, we do need to talk about what I’m going to put in the feature article.”
“Unbelievable!” he scoffs. “You’re a reporter through and through.”
“Yes I am!” I hurl at him, fed up with not only his inane comments but also the fact that he’s simply refusing to hear what I’m saying. “You knew who I was before I came here. You requested me to do an interview about what happened in Zimbabwe twelve months ago. Has that suddenly just slipped your mind?”
“No, it hasn’t slipped my mind!”
“Then why are you so shocked that I want to use what you’ve said in the story then? A story that will not only paint you in a good light but be poignant and real to people.”
“Because that’s not why I asked you here.”
I look at him in absolute bewilderment.
What is he talking about?
Why else would I be here?