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Under my skin, p.1
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       Under My Skin, p.1

         Part #3 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner  
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Under My Skin
Page 1
one
There is peace in these moments between sleep and wakefulness. In the soft minutes that seem to stretch into hours, warm and comforting like a gift bestowed by a benevolent universe.
This is a world of dreams, and right now it is safe. It is right. And I want to stay here, wrapped tight in the comfort of his arms.
But dreams often turn into nightmares, and as I move through the corridors of sleep, dark fingers of fear reach out to me. My pulse pounds and my breath comes too shallow. I curl toward him, craving his touch, but he is not there, and I sit bolt upright, my skin clammy from a sheen of sweat. My heart pounding so hard I will surely crack a rib.
Jackson.
I’m awake now, alone and disoriented as a wild panic cuts through me. I’m afraid, but I don’t remember why.
Too quickly though, it all rushes back, and as the memories return with wakefulness, I long to slide back into oblivion. Because whatever horror my mind would fabricate in dreams couldn’t be any worse than the reality that now surrounds me, cold and stark.
A reality in which the world is crumbling down around my ears.
A reality in which the man I love desperately is suspected of murder.
With a sigh, I press a hand to my cheek, my memory sharpening as I shake off the haze of slumber. He’d brushed a kiss over my cheek before slipping out of our warm cocoon and into the chilly morning air. At the time I’d been content to stay behind, snuggled tight in the blankets that still held his scent and radiated the lingering heat from his body.
Now I wish I had roused myself when he did, because I don’t want to be alone. Alone is when panic creeps closer.
Alone is when I’m certain that I will lose him.
Alone is what I fear.
And yet even as the thought enters my mind, the solitude is shattered. The bedroom door bursts open, and a dark-haired, blue-eyed bundle of sunshine races toward me, then leaps onto the bed and starts bouncing, her energy so vibrant I laugh despite myself. “Sylvie! Sylvie! I made toast with Uncle Jackson!”
“Toast? Really?” It’s work, but I manage to keep my voice perky and upbeat despite the fact that fear still clings to me like cobwebs. I give Ronnie a quick, tight hug, but my attention isn’t on her anymore. Instead, I am focused entirely on the man in the doorway.
He stands casually on the threshold, a wooden tray in his hands. His coal black hair is untidy from sleep, and he sports two days of beard stubble. He wears flannel pajama bottoms and a pale gray T-shirt. By every indication, he is a man who has just awakened. A man with nothing on his mind but the morning and breakfast and the bits of news that fill the paper tucked under his arm.
But dear god, he is so much more. He is power and tenderness, strength and control. He is the man who has colored my days and illuminated my nights.
Jackson Steele. The man I love. The man I once foolishly tried to leave. The man who grabbed hold and pulled me back, then slayed my demons, and in doing so claimed my heart.
But it is those very demons that have brought us to this moment.
Because Robert Cabot Reed was one of those demons, and now Reed is dead. Someone entered his Beverly Hills home and bashed his head in with a decorative piece of carved ivory.
And I can’t help but fear that the someone was Jackson, and that soon he will have to pay the price.
We arrived in Santa Fe late yesterday afternoon, both of us feeling light and happy and eager. Jackson had intended to spend the weekend with Ronnie and then go to court on Monday in order to set a hearing on his petition to formally claim paternity and establish that he is Ronnie’s father in the eyes of the law. That plan, however, was sideswiped when local detectives met our plane, then informed Jackson that he was wanted back in Beverly Hills for questioning in Reed’s murder.
The afternoon shifted from a happy, laid-back reunion to a frantic flurry of activity, with calls between New Mexico and California, lawyers squabbling, deals churning.
At the end of it all, Jackson was permitted to stay the weekend, on condition that he go straight to the Beverly Hills Police Department Monday morning. In truth, Jackson could have garnered much more time—unless the police wanted to actually arrest, their leverage was limited—but his attorney wisely advised against it. After all, playing games isn’t the way to win either police cooperation or public opinion. And while we don’t yet know what physical evidence the police have collected, there’s no lack of motive for Jackson to have killed Reed.
Motive.
The word sounds so clean compared to Reed, who was a dirty, horrible man.
Not only had he abused and tormented me when I was a teen, but he’d recently threatened to release some of the vile photographs that he’d taken of me back then if I didn’t convince Jackson to stop trying to block a movie that Reed wanted green-lit. A movie that would expose secrets and deceptions—and that would thrust Ronnie, an innocent child, into the middle of a very public, very messy scandal. Page 2

Did Jackson want the movie stopped? Hell, yes.
Did he want to protect me from the horror of seeing those pictures flashed across the internet? Damn right.
Did he want to punish Reed for the things he’d done to me so many years ago? Absolutely.
Did Jackson kill Reed?
As for that one—I truly don’t know.
More than that, I’m not allowed to ask. According to Charles Maynard, Jackson’s attorney, it is very likely that the police will interview me, too. And there is no privilege for girlfriends. Which means Charles wants me to be able to honestly say that Jackson was under strict orders from his attorneys, and that he didn’t say anything to me about whether he did or did not kill Reed. Not yes, not no, not maybe. Just nothing.
Nothing.
I know what that means, of course. Nothing is code for probably.
Nothing is code for that way you can’t later incriminate him.
Nothing is code for we’re trying to forestall the worst.
Just thinking about it makes me tremble, and I sit up, my back against the headboard and my pillow tight in my arms as I watch the man I love set the tray and the newspaper on the small table tucked in beneath the still-curtained window.
It’s a small task, but he performs it with confident precision, just as he does so much else in his life. Jackson is not a man to let circumstance get the better of him, and he is not a man who will let an injury go unavenged. He is a man who protects what he loves, and I know with unwavering certainty that the two things he loves most in this world are his daughter and me.
He would, I’m certain, kill to protect either of us, and that’s a thought that sends a little shiver of pleasure through me. But it’s tempered by fear and dread. Because Jackson would go even further; he’d sacrifice himself if he thought it would protect us. And I’m horribly afraid that’s exactly what he has done.
And, honestly, if Jackson ends up behind bars, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to bear the guilt.
He comes over to sit on the edge of the bed and is immediately assaulted by a three-year-old cyclone demanding to be tickled. He smiles and complies, then looks at me. But the smile doesn’t quite warm his ice blue eyes.
I reach for him and take his hand in mine. How many times in the hours since we arrived have I searched for the perfect words to soothe him? But there are no perfect words. I can only do my best. I can only just be here.
“Anything about you in there?” I ask with a nod to the paper that he’s left on the table.
“No, but since that’s the local Santa Fe paper I wouldn’t expect there to be. ”
I frown. “Do you want me to look?” I’m not talking about the local paper, and he knows it. I’m offering to hop online and scope out the various gossip sites from back home, especially those that focus on Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and all things murder and celebrity.
He shakes his head, and his response only deepens my frown. He told me yesterday that he didn’t want anything to mar this time with Ronnie, and I get that. But we’ve already got the cloud of a murder hanging over us—and knowing the gossip means being prepared.
I argued as much last night, but I’m willing to make my case again. In fact, I’m opening my mouth to do just that when he presses his finger to my lips. “I looked this morning,” he says gently. “There’s nothing. ”
“Really?”
“Really,” he confirms. He squeezes my hand, then holds out his free one for Ronnie. “I got on my tablet and looked while this little one was making toast. Didn’t I?” he asks, as she scrambles into his lap. “Didn’t I?” he repeats, then tickles her until she squeals and says, “Yes! Yes!” even though she clearly has no idea what we’re talking about.
“Your witness seems a little tainted to me. ” I fight a smile. He’s such a natural dad, and the ease with which he’s slid into the role awes me a bit.
“Maybe. But the testimony is all true. ” He kisses the top of her head, then pulls her close, the action so full of wild, heartbreaking emotion that it almost shatters me.
“You should go on outside with Grammy,” Jackson tells the little girl. “Fred’s probably wondering where you are. ”
At the mention of the puppy, her blue eyes, so like Jackson’s, go wide. “You’ll come, too?”
“Absolutely,” he promises. “Let me talk to Syl while she drinks her coffee and then I’ll come find you. ”
“And eat your toast?” she asks, her earnest question aimed at me.
“I can’t wait for the toast,” I say. “I bet it’s the best toast ever. ” Page 3

“Yup,” she confirms, then shoots out of the room like a rocket.
Jackson watches her go, and I watch Jackson. When he turns back, he catches me eyeing him, then smiles sheepishly. “It’s hard to believe sometimes,” he says. “That she’s really mine, I mean. ”
I think about the little girl’s dark hair and blue eyes. Her cleverness coupled with a vibrant personality and fierce determination. “Not hard to believe at all. ”
I had hoped to coax a smile, but still he just looks sad.
“There was really nothing?”
“I promise. ” I must look dubious, because he continues. “The police aren’t going to release names. Not until an arrest. Or until it drags on so long they feel like they need to get ahead of a leak. ”
“And you know this because of your vast experience in the criminal underworld?”
“Years of watching television,” he corrects. “But you know I’m right. ”
I nod. It makes sense. Plus, the police don’t yet know everything. As far as I’m aware, they know only about Jackson’s determination to block the movie. The blackmail and Ronnie’s existence remain hidden.
That, however, doesn’t lessen my fear. Because if—no, when—those come to light, it will look worse for Jackson.
“Are you okay?” I ask. It’s a stupid question, and it hangs there, as awkward and inadequate as I feel.
He shakes his head, just a little. “No,” he admits. He brushes his fingers lightly over my cheek, his attention on my face, his eyes searching mine. At first, he looks lost, but that soon changes as heat and need build in his eyes. Both are directed at me, and neither is a question. There is no permission to be granted, no request to be made. He simply slides his hand around to cup the back of my neck and pulls me toward him, then captures my mouth with his.
I open to him without hesitation, not just my lips, but my entire body. I am his, wholly and completely, and however he needs me.
He deepens the kiss, his tongue teasing and tasting. His mouth hot and desperate against mine.
We didn’t make love last night, too exhausted from both travel and the emotional whirlwind. Too wrapped up in seeing family and spending time with Ronnie.
And that is part of why I now expect more than the wildness of this kiss. I expect the crush of his hands upon my breasts. An explosion of breath as he pushes me back on the mattress, then rises to slam the door shut and flip the latch. The shift of the mattress as he returns, and the sound of ripping cotton as he strips me of my panties.
I anticipate the feel of his body over mine. Of my wrists bound tight by his T-shirt that I wear in lieu of pajamas after he yanks it over my head and uses it to constrain me.
I imagine the tightness in my inner thighs as he roughly spreads my legs, and the quick burn of friction as he enters me hard in one thrust and then loses himself to this wild passion that he needs. That he craves.
I expect all this because I know him. Because his world has spun out of control, and Jackson is a man who not only needs control, but who takes it. He is not a man to be swept up in the tide, battered by the rise and fall of circumstance. He fights back. He wins. He takes.
I channeled control into sex.
He’d told me that once. And he’s shown me as much many, many times.
And yet he doesn’t come to me. He doesn’t take. He doesn’t claim.
Fear slithers over me as he releases me, then stands. He doesn’t meet my eyes, but simply turns and moves from the bed to the window, then drags his fingers through his hair.
“Jackson?”
He doesn’t react. He simply stands there, his back to me, his shoulders slumped. And I am certain that he didn’t hear me, because how could he? Right then he is miles away, not just a few short feet across the bare wooden floor.
The table is in front of him. My coffee and toast are still there, untouched. He pushes the tray aside and opens the curtains, letting in the morning light.
We are in Betty Wiseman’s house, Ronnie’s maternal great-grandmother. The family is well-to-do, but this New Mexico home is a small getaway, a “mere” five thousand square feet. Jackson and I are in one of the guest rooms that overlook the back of the property. The view I’d seen yesterday evening was magnificent—the rocky, rising terrain of the mountains, dressed up in their fall colors. The verdant grasses and evergreens. The browns and reds of stones and foliage. And, of course, the vivid blue sky, so wide and resplendent that it seems to slide into and fill your soul.
But from where I still sit on the bed, stiff and awkward and just a little scared, I see only a small section of the covered patio and a view of the side of the house. I’m not at the proper angle to see the beautiful panorama that Jackson is looking at right now. Instead, our perspectives are entirely different, and that small reality eats at me. Page 4

I lick my lips, feeling distant and impotent and lost. And, yes, a little bit angry, too. Because, dammit, I don’t want to see him in pain, not if I can soothe him.
But that’s the heart of it, isn’t it? That’s really my greatest fear.
Not that I’m unable to soothe Jackson, but that he would rather bear this burden alone.
Screw it.
I toss the covers aside and walk to him, his T-shirt that I slept in brushing my thighs. I slide my arms around his waist from behind so that I am pressed against him, my cheek against his back. I breathe in the scent of him, male and musk and just the tiniest bit of fabric softener. It’s clean, maybe even a little bit domestic. But on Jackson, it’s also very, very sexy.
My hands are at his waist, and it would be so easy to slide them down. To stroke him and make him hard. To play and coax. To seduce and please.
To make him so hot and so hard that he wants nothing but me, can think of nothing but me. To tease him until he picks me up and throws me onto the bed in a violent explosion that not only consumes us both but destroys the shadows that have crept in between us, banishing them with fire and heat and light.
But even that’s not what I want. Not really. What I want—what I need—is for Jackson to come to me. To use me as he has in the past to soothe his wounds and make himself whole.
So instead of sliding my hand down to close around his cock, I simply hold still, clinging to this man who I love and need. And hoping against hope that he is not slipping away from me.
A moment passes, and then another. I hear the dog barking on the back lawn and the high-pitched squeal of Ronnie’s laughter followed by the lower tones of her great-grandmother and Stella, the housekeeper-turned-nanny.
Jackson is perfectly still, but then his hands rise to his waist to close over mine, so that as I hug him from behind, he is holding me in place. I close my eyes, relishing the strength of his touch. But then he very gently pulls my hands apart and steps out of the circle of my arms.
I hug myself tight against the loss of his warmth. But it’s no use. I am chilled to the bone. Lost, angry, afraid. And very, very alone.
He goes and sits on the edge of the bed, then scrubs his hands over his face. When he gazes up at me, he looks so tired that all of my anger and insecurity seems to spill out of me, and all I want to do is console him. I go to him, dropping to the ground in front of him and pressing my hands to his knees.
His smile, though tremulous, warms me, and when he gently brushes my cheek with his thumb, I almost weep with relief.
“Oh, hell,” he finally says. “I’m a fucking mess. ”
“A bit,” I say, and am rewarded with just a hint of a smile. “But you’ll get through this. We’ll get through it. ”
“All I wanted was to take my daughter home. ”
His words seem to twist inside me, as if they are just slightly off-kilter. It takes me a moment to realize why. “Wanted?” I repeat.
“I called Amy first thing this morning. ” His voice is flat and emotionless, as if he is working very hard to keep it that way.
“Oh. ” Amy Brantley is his family law attorney in Santa Fe. She’s the one who filed his petition to establish paternity and parental rights. And although I have yet to meet her in person, I know that she’s the one who will be setting the hearing on that petition as soon as possible. “So what did she say? When are you setting a court date?”
I see a shadow in his eyes. “We’re not. We’re going to wait. ”
“Wait? But . . . ” I try to gather my thoughts even as I realize that I should have expected this. Because I know what this means. This means he doesn’t think he’ll be around to take care of her.
“Oh, god, Jackson. ” I don’t mean for it to, but my voice is full of dread and fear.
“No,” he says, then repeats it more firmly. “No. I’m not giving in. I’m not folding. Not even close. But I’m also not taking risks with my little girl. What if the worst were to happen and I end up in a jail cell? Megan may be her legal guardian right now, but she won’t be once my rights are established. Would a California court send Ronnie back to New Mexico? To Megan? A former guardian with a host of mental health issues who’s checked herself into a center while she tries to get better? Or to Betty, an elderly great-grandmother? Maybe. But more likely she’ll end up in foster care. I can’t risk that. I won’t risk that. ”
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