On my knees, p.1
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       On My Knees, p.1

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner  
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On My Knees
Page 1

  one

  Jackson Steele tossed back the last of his scotch, slammed the glass down on the polished granite bar, and considered ordering another.

  He could use it—that was damn sure—but probably better to have a clear head before he went to answer his brother’s summons.

  His brother.

  That was something he didn’t say every day. Hell, he’d spent his entire life avoiding saying it. Been told he wasn’t allowed to say it.

  “Sometimes families have secrets,” his father had said.

  Wasn’t that the fucking truth?

  The great and glorious Damien Stark—one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men—had no idea that he and Jackson shared a father.

  But in about fifteen minutes he’d know. Because Jackson was going to tell him. Had to tell him.

  Fuck.

  He held up his hand to get the bartender’s attention because, screw it, right now he really could use another drink.

  The bartender nodded, poured two fingers of Glenmorangie, neat, then slid the glass to Jackson. He hesitated, bar rag in hand, until Jackson finally looked up and met his eyes. “Something else?” Jackson asked.

  “Sorry. No. ” It was a lie, of course, and as Jackson watched, the bartender’s cheeks turned pink.

  The bartender, whose name tag identified him as Phil, was in his early twenties, and with his hair slicked back and his perfectly tailored dark suit, he looked as essential to the Gallery Bar—which epitomized the glamour and excitement of the 1920s—as the polished wood, glittering chandeliers, and ornate carvings that filled and completed this space.

  The historic Millennium Biltmore hotel had always been one of Jackson’s favorite places in Los Angeles. As a teenager, when he’d only dreamed of becoming an architect, he would come as often as he could, usually begging a friend with a car to bring him up from San Diego and drop him downtown. He would wander the hotel, soaking up the exquisite Spanish-Italian-Renaissance-style architecture that blended so well with the California location. The architects, Schultze and Weaver, were among Jackson’s idols, and he would spend hours examining the fine detail in all of the elements, from the elegant columns and doorways, to the exposed wood-framed roofs, to the intricate cast-iron railings and elaborate wooden carvings.

  As with any exceptional building, each room had its own personality despite being tied together by common elements. The Gallery Bar had long been Jackson’s favorite space, the live music, intimate lighting, excellent wine list, and extensive menu adding value to an already priceless space.

  Now, Phil stood behind the long granite bar that served as one of the room’s focal points. Behind him, a menagerie of fine whiskeys danced in the glow of the room’s dim lighting. He was framed on either side by carved wooden angels, and in Jackson’s mind, it seemed as if all three—angels and man—were standing in judgment over him.

  Phil cleared his throat, apparently realizing that he hadn’t moved. “Yeah. Sorry. ” He started to exuberantly wipe the bar. “I just thought you looked familiar. ”

  “I must have one of those faces,” Jackson said dryly, knowing damn well that Phil knew who he was. Jackson Steele, celebrity architect. Jackson Steele, subject of the documentary, Stone and Steele, which had recently screened at the Chinese theater. Jackson Steele, newest addition to the team for The Resort at Cortez, a Stark Vacation Property.

  Jackson Steele, released yesterday on bail after assaulting Robert Cabot Reed, producer, director, and overall vile human being.

  The latter, of course, is what would have put Jackson on Phil’s radar. This was Los Angeles, after all, and in Los Angeles, anything entertainment-related passed as hard news. Forget the economy or strife overseas. In the City of Angels, Hollywood trumped everything else. And that meant that Jackson’s picture had been plastered all over the newspapers, local television, and social media.

  He didn’t regret it. Not the fight. Not the arrest. He didn’t even regret the press, although he knew that they would dig. And if they dug deep enough, they’d find a whole cornucopia of reasons why Jackson might want to destroy the pathetic Mr. Reed.

  Well, let them. He wasn’t the least bit repentant. Hell, if anything he wished he could do it again, because the few punches he’d managed to land on Reed had only been satisfying in the moment. But every time he thought about it—every time he pictured what the son of a bitch had done to Sylvia—he knew he hadn’t gone far enough.

  He should have killed the bastard.

  For the way he’d hurt the woman Jackson loved, Robert Cabot Reed deserved to die.

  She’d been only fourteen at the time. A child. An innocent. And Reed had used her. Raped her. Humiliated her. Page 2

  He’d been a photographer then, and she his model. A position of power and of trust, and he’d twisted that around, making it vile and dirty.

  He’d hurt the girl, and he’d damaged the woman.

  And Jackson couldn’t think of anything bad enough that could happen to the man.

  He closed his eyes and thought of Sylvia. Her small, slim body that felt so right in his arms. The gold that highlighted her dark brown hair, making her face seem luminous. Christ, he wanted her beside him now. Wanted to twine his fingers with hers and hold her close. He wanted her strength, though she didn’t even realize how strong she was.

  But this was something he had to do alone. And he needed to do it now.

  He slid off the stool, then dropped a fifty on the bar. “Keep the change,” he said, as Phil’s eyes went wide.

  He left the bar, moving quickly through the hotel’s glittering lobby to the main entrance that opened on South Grand Avenue. Stark Tower was just up the hill to the east. It was a cool October night, and the building glowed against the coal-black sky. Right now, Damien Stark was in the penthouse apartment with his wife, Nikki, probably unpacking after their long weekend in Manhattan.

  Stark’s second assistant, Rachel Peters, had called Jackson that morning. “He’ll be back from New York this evening,” she’d said. “And he wants to see you tomorrow at eight sharp before the regular Tuesday briefing. ”

  “About the resort?” He’d asked the question casually, as if he couldn’t imagine any other reason that Stark would want to see him.

  “He didn’t say. But I thought—I mean, I assumed—” He heard her draw a deep breath before her voice dropped to a stage whisper. “Well, don’t you think it’s probably about the arrest? And all the press coverage?”

  He shook his head at the memory, half-irritated and half-amused. Fucking summoned.

  If this was only about work, he would have waited until morning and gone at the appointed time. But this was personal, and he needed to do it now.

  He’d already called security, and he knew that Stark’s helicopter had landed over an hour ago. He also knew that Stark was staying in the Tower apartment overnight, not bothering to make the drive to his Malibu house.

  It was eight o’clock on a Monday night, and it was time for Stark to know the truth.

  As he trudged up the hill, Jackson thought about how quickly things had changed. A month ago, he would have rather eaten nails than worked for Damien Stark. But then Sylvia had approached him with the kind of project that is any architect’s wet dream. To design a resort from the ground up. And not just any resort, but one located on its own private island. And she was handing him a blank slate.

  The overture had surprised him for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that five years ago she’d ripped a hole in his heart, when she brutally and permanently ended things between them.

  The loss had devastated him, and he’d eased his anger in the ring and in his work. Winning—and losing—fight after fight. Burying himself in his commissions, his reputation growing as his projects became more and more ambitious.

  Work may have been his savior, but working for her—hell, working for Stark—was not something he was prepared to do. He knew damn well he couldn’t bear the pain of being around Sylvia. Of working so intimately with her.

  And as for Stark … well, Jackson had plenty of reasons not to work for or trust the man, not the least of which was that Jackson didn’t want to see his work overshadowed by the Stark name and logo.

  But revenge is a powerful motivator.

  So he’d said yes, fully intending to take her to the edge of pleasure. To reclaim her. To bind her so close to him that she could see no one else, feel no one else, dream of no one else. And then, when she was stuck fast in his web, he would clip the strands and walk away, leaving the resort to flounder, and leaving Sylvia exactly the way that she had left him, drowning in pain and loss and misery.

  Dear god, he’d been a fool.

  He’d accepted the offer to design The Resort at Cortez for the worst of reasons. To hurt the woman who’d hurt him. To screw with the half-brother who had been the focal point of so much shit in his life. Who’d tugged hard and unraveled the threads of his life. Pulling his father away. Ripping his family apart.

  Now the woman meant the world to him, and he would enthusiastically destroy anyone who hurt her.

  Now the job was his passion, a project that was already fully formed in his imagination and sketches.

  And as for the brother, nothing much had changed. Once again, it was Damien Stark who had the power. Who could, in one quick, violent motion, tear the world out from under Jackson’s feet. Page 3

  All because he wanted a job.

  All because he loved a woman.

  All because in addition to controlling so much of the known fucking universe, Damien Stark controlled Jackson’s world as well.

  And what Jackson feared tonight was that when Stark knew the truth that had been kept from him for over thirty years, Stark would wield his power like a blunt instrument.

  But Jackson was a fighter, and if it came down to brother against brother, he’d do whatever was necessary to be the man left standing.

  two

  “Evening, Joe,” Jackson said as he crossed the lobby toward the security desk. He glanced at his watch, then back at the security guard with the wide smile and weathered face. “Don’t you ever go home?”

  Joe’s smile stretched even wider, and he tapped his index finger against the rim of his uniform cap. “My work is my life, Mr. Steele. ”

  “Call me Jackson, and between you and me, I think you’re full of it. ”

  “God’s honest truth,” Joe said. “Of course, my wife and three little girls are also my life. And what with Christmas being just a few months away …” He trailed off with a shrug. “What can I say? I’m all about the overtime. ”

  “Your secret’s safe with me. ” He hooked a thumb in the direction of the elevator bank. “Can you clear me through to the apartment? I’ve got an appointment with Stark in the morning, but I don’t think this should wait. ”

  “Go on,” Joe said, pressing the button on his console to call Stark’s private elevator. “I’ll call up. If he says no, it’ll just be a very short trip. ”

  “Right. ” Jackson cleared his throat. “Fair enough. ”

  It wasn’t until Jackson entered the elevator car that he realized his hands were clenched as if he was waiting to punch someone. Hell, maybe he was. Because if Stark told him to go away and come back in the morning, Jackson would most likely put his fist through the elevator’s polished wood paneling.

  The fine oak planks were saved, however, when the doors closed and the button for the penthouse lit up. A moment later, Jackson’s hand was clenched again, this time around the railing. He hadn’t yet been in this car, and it definitely qualified as an express.

  The elevator featured two sets of doors, and based on the position of the elevator in the bank, Jackson knew that the doors he was facing opened to the reception area for Stark’s private penthouse office.

  The Tower apartment took up the other half of the floor, and as the elevator slowed, Jackson turned and faced the second set of doors that, as he expected, opened into the apartment’s foyer.

  The area was bright and inviting, tasteful but not overdone. A marble table in the center of the space held a large but not ostentatious arrangement of sunflowers and Indian paintbrushes, and despite himself, Jackson smiled at the whimsy of wildflowers where a more exotic bloom would be expected.

  “Jackson!” Nikki came around the wall that separated the entrance from the rest of the apartment. She wore jeans and a New York Yankees T-shirt and had her shoulder-length hair pushed away from her face by a headband. Despite her lack of makeup, she looked absolutely stunning, and Jackson recalled that she’d competed in several beauty pageants before moving to Los Angeles.

  She padded to him in bare feet and gave him a friendly hug. “It’s lovely to see you. ”

  “I’m sorry to intrude. I know you must be tired from your trip. ”

  “I am,” she admitted, “but Damien’s not. He’s catching up on some work things, getting ready for tomorrow. So you’re not interrupting at all. Come on,” she said, leading the way. “Do you want coffee? Something stronger?”

  He was tempted to have another scotch, just to take the edge off. But prudence won out, and he shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks. ”

  Five seconds later, he was wishing he’d taken the drink. Because there was Stark pacing in front of the wall of windows, the city shining bright behind him.

  And there was Sylvia, perched on the edge of an ottoman, a pad in her lap and a pen in her hand, taking detailed notes.

  Her back was to him and she was so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t seen him yet. For a moment, he could only stare. He’d left her only hours ago, naked in her bed, and he hadn’t expected to see her again until this ordeal with his brother was finished. So the sight of her now was a shock to his senses, and for a moment he could only stand like an idiot, his lips pressed together so he didn’t call out her name. His feet planted so he didn’t go to her. His hands at his sides so he didn’t reach out to touch her. Page 4

  He must have made a noise, or maybe she just sensed his presence as strongly as he felt hers, because she turned her head suddenly and her mouth formed into a perfect little O even as her pen tumbled from her hand.

  “Jackson! I didn’t—I mean, I wondered—” She frowned as she cut off her words.

  He understood her dilemma. When he’d left her condo, he’d told her where he was going. And yet she’d arrived long before he had. She’d probably assumed that he’d changed his mind, and expected to hear why when they met back up at her place.

  Now here he was, and they were both surprised.

  “—has something he wants to talk with you about tonight. ” Nikki’s words filtered into Jackson’s head, and he realized that he’d been so absorbed in watching Sylvia that he’d tuned out everything else around him. “You were engrossed in maxing out Syl’s to-do list,” Nikki said to Stark, “so I went ahead and cleared him to come up. ”

  Stark turned from the window, smiling at Nikki as he did. But the smile faded when his eyes met Jackson’s. “I thought we were meeting in the morning. ”

  “That’s when the appointment is,” Jackson said. “But there are things we should talk about now. ”

  Stark studied him a minute, then nodded. “All right. ” He moved across the room toward Sylvia and held out his hand for something. Her eyes cut quickly to Jackson, and he could see the tension in her shoulders, but her professionalism never slipped as she reached for an electronic tablet that sat near her on the coffee table.

  He wondered if Stark noticed the way her fingers shook just slightly as she navigated over the tablet screen. But she held it together.

  What she didn’t do was look at Jackson.

  After a moment, she passed the tablet to Stark. He glanced at it, then handed it to Jackson. “You’ve had an interesting few days,” he said as Jackson looked down at the photo of him being led away from Reed’s house in handcuffs.

  Jackson swiped his finger across the surface and scrolled through the rest of the images. News coverage from all over the country. Most focused entirely on him—Starchitect Jackson Steele arrested!—but some tied Stark and The Resort at Cortez in to the story.

  He kept his posture straight and his face impassive. If Stark thought he was going to get a rise out of Jackson by showing him the coverage that Jackson had already seen, he was going to be sorely disappointed.

  “Did you come here to tell me why you spent a perfectly fine Saturday evening beating the shit out of some pissant film director?”

  Jackson cocked his head at the pejorative, but in response said only, “No. I really didn’t. ”

  Stark’s brow lifted almost imperceptibly, and Jackson stiffened, prepared to accept the brunt of his half-brother’s famous temper. It was, he thought wryly, something they shared. But all Stark did was tilt his head, glance toward Nikki, then nod. “Fair enough. ” He gestured toward an armchair. “Have a seat. ”

  “I’m fine standing. Thanks. ”

  “Have it your way. ” Stark returned to the window, then stood with his back to the room. From Jackson’s position, he could see Stark’s face reflected in the glass, the lights of the city spread out behind him. Appropriate, Jackson supposed, since Stark owned half the fucking world, and most of Los Angeles. “This has the potential to turn into a clusterfuck,” Stark said. “A public relations nightmare. I’m surprised we don’t already have the damn tabloid reporters camped out in front of the building. ”

  Jackson said nothing. Stark was right, so what was there to say?

  “They’ve called me. Hell, they’ve called Sylvia,” he added, and Jackson immediately turned to Syl. Her eyes flicked to his, sad and a little lost, before she looked down again at her notepad. She hadn’t told him the press had contacted her, and that new reality made his stomach twist.

  “‘No comment’ is the official response of this office,” Stark continued. He turned to face Jackson, his dual-colored eyes burning into him. “But it’s only going to get worse. That’s the bad news. The good news is that scandal doesn’t scare me. I’ve lived with it my entire life. Neither does temper. I’ve met Reed, and I can only assume he pissed you off royally. It happens. ”

  The corner of his mouth twitched in what might have been an effort to hold back a smile. “Arrest, scandal, uncomfortable press coverage—none of those things shake the foundation around here, and they don’t put your job at risk. Not unless it affects your work. So tell me, Steele. Is this bullshit going to affect your work?” Page 5

  “No. ”

  Stark hesitated, as if waiting for Jackson to elaborate, then seemed to realize that Jackson had said all he intended to. And why not? As far as the resort was concerned, that one word said it all.

 
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