Under My Skinpart #3 of Stark International Trilogy Series by J. Kenner / Romance & Love
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.
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.
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.