On my knees, p.10
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       On My Knees, p.10

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
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“My loyalty isn’t misplaced,” I say.

  “No, you’re right. But the urge to quit because of me is. ”

  I think about it. “Maybe,” I say. I’m honestly not sure. But I do know that I am relieved that he isn’t angry that I stayed. And, more than that, that he doesn’t even want me to go.

  “So who will you pick to fill my very large shoes?”

  “Damien wants Glau back on the project. Did I tell you he was less than enthusiastic about Tibet?”

  “Good god. ”

  “I know. ” I drag my fingers through my hair. “Even if you’re gone—which sucks—but even if you are, surely I can find someone better than him. Someone with more enthusiasm, at least. I mean, Glau actually walked off. I don’t want him back. ”

  “Say so. It’s your project, after all. ”

  I consider that. And he’s right. “It is my project,” I say firmly. “And if Damien can veto you, then I can veto Glau. ”

  Jackson grins at me. “That’s my girl. Can you hold on to that attitude in the face of my brother?”

  I make a face. “I guess we’ll see. ”

  “Well, good for you. ” He puts his hand over mine. “Apparently I’m just going to sit back and say fuck it. ” He pushes away from the table and rises from his stool. “Dammit, that’s just not me. I don’t take shit lying down. I never have. ”

  “Then why now?”

  “Because apparently I’m one of Pavlov’s fucking dogs. ”

  I have no idea what he’s talking about and say so.

  “All my life, moving to the whim of Damien. He said jump, and my family asked how high. ” He makes a derisive noise in his throat. “Bastard has his finger on the control button and he is constantly pressing. ”

  “So take it back. Take control back from him. You’re good at that. ”

  He’s been facing opposite me, but now he turns, and I can see that he’s considering something. “You’re right,” he says as his expression clears and a wide grin spreads across his face. “I absolutely am. ” Page 38

  He pulls me to a kiss. “Come on. It’s late, and you have work tomorrow. ”

  “I do,” I say. I gently trace my finger over his fading bruises. He’s shirtless, wearing only sweatpants that are loosely tied at his waist. “How are they?”

  “Better. ”

  I press my palm against the largest one and feel his muscles quiver under my touch. I bite back a satisfied smile, delighted to see such tangible evidence that he desires me as much as I do him. “I hope so. They still look painful. ”

  “Better now with you,” he amends.

  I slowly slide down to my knees, my fingers plucking at the drawstring of his sweats as I descend.

  “Something on your mind, Ms. Brooks?” He sounds both amused and aroused. And his erection—now growing beneath the thin material—is certainly proof of the latter.

  “I believe we discussed playing doctor?”

  “Did we?”

  “Mmm-hmm. ” I tug loose the drawstring, and then let the sweats fall off him, though I do have to rearrange the material a bit to free his growing erection.

  His sweats pool around his ankles, and as they do I lean forward and lick the tip of his cock.

  “Oh, dear god,” he says, and twines his fingers in my hair. “What the hell are you doing?”

  I laugh. “Sweetheart, if you don’t know—” And then, because I’m inspired, I grin up at him. “I’m taking your temperature,” I say, and then take him into my mouth as deep as I can.

  He tastes wonderful. So male. So Jackson.

  And as I stroke and lick and tease, his cock tightens, and he groans in a way that makes me go completely wet. And though I don’t want to stop—though I am loving this jolt of feminine power—right at this moment, I desperately want him inside me.

  As if he can read my mind, he slowly pulls back, freeing his cock and then easing me up.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Not a thing,” he says as he scoops me up and cradles me next to his bare chest. “Except that I think I might just die if I can’t lay you out on the bed and have my way with you right now. ”

  “Oh. ” A wonderfully sensual tremor rolls through me. “Well, in that case, who am I to stop a man with a plan?”


  “I have to be honest, Damien. I’m not thrilled with any of them. But I’m definitely vetoing Glau. ”

  “Are you?” He lifts a single brow, obviously amused.

  We’re in the sitting area of his office, with me on the small sofa and Damien in a chair across a low coffee table from me. I’ve put together files of every possible architect for the Cortez project, and I’m holding them in my lap, ready to run through each candidate’s pros and cons. Now I lean forward and put the stack on the table, then sit back and cross my legs, hoping I look more confident and in control than I feel.

  “Yes, Mr. Stark,” I say firmly. “I am. ”

  “Mr. Stark,” he repeats. He stands up and moves to the bar across the room. “I was wondering how pissed off you were. I guess now I know. ”

  I don’t try to deny it. I routinely call him Mr. Stark when I’m working his desk or when we’re with other people. But I’ve gotten so close to Nikki that formality feels awkward when I’m not in the role of his assistant. So yes, the fact that I called him Mr. Stark just now is my passive-aggressive way of telling him that as far as I’m concerned he’s making a huge mistake by cutting Jackson from the project.

  He pours himself a shot of scotch, neat. “Care for one?”

  I glance at my watch. It’s a quarter to five, and I figure that’s good enough. “Hell, yes. ”

  He chuckles, then returns with a glass for each of us. “I take it we’re not drinking to Martin Glau?”

  “I mean it, Damien. I’ve spent days staring at his concept sketches and they’re just not up to snuff. You vetoed my choice without asking for my input despite the fact that I’m the project manager—”

  “I just thought what with me owning the company and all …”

  “No,” I say, the words spilling out before I can censor myself. “That’s not what you were thinking and we both know it. Shit. ” I lift the glass and take a long drink. “Sorry. Apparently I’m in the mood today to commit career suicide. All I’m saying is that you don’t want Jackson and I don’t want Glau. So there you go. ”

  I take another sip of the drink and try to look as calm and composed as possible despite the fact that inside my head I am running a steady stream of fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

  For a moment, Damien says nothing, and I wonder who in town might be hiring and whether or not Aiden will write me a good letter of recommendation. Over the years I’ve learned to read Damien pretty well. Right now, I don’t have a clue what he’s thinking. Page 39

  And that’s really not a good sign.

  “Listen, I’m sorry. This whole thing is a sore spot and I know that, and I shouldn’t have said anything. ” I stand and start to gather the files. “I’ll ask Rachel to squeeze me onto your calendar tomorrow. Or I can come by the house over the weekend. I just think that now’s not the right time and—”

  “Sit. ”

  I hesitate, then comply. But I keep the files in my lap in case a quick escape is called for.

  “So if Glau is out, who does that leave us with?”

  I tilt my head a bit. “Really?”

  “You say he’s not up to snuff, then I believe you. So who should we consider?”

  I’m tempted to tell him that no one even comes close to Jackson, but I don’t want to upset this shaky detente. “Phillip Traynor’s work is quite interesting. ” I open the top folder and pull out a photograph of a hotel in Prague that put Traynor on the map three years ago.

  I’ve loved and studied architecture my whole life, and next to Jackson, I think Traynor is one of the most talented architects working today. Even so, as far as I’m concerned,
he’s sloppy seconds.

  Still, I’m in cooperation-mode, and so I pass the picture and the folder to Damien, who studies my notes as I continue speaking. “He’s done a number of hotels, so he understands the travel and entertainment aspects. But he’s never worked on an all-out resort, so I think the project would intrigue him. ”

  “Looks promising. What’s the downside?”

  “He has a reputation for being difficult,” I admit. “But despite that he’s very in demand. Which raises the second mark against him—his schedule is incredibly tight. I talked to his people, and he’s finishing up a project right now, but he was planning on taking three months off. If we bring him in, he’s going to up his fee to cover the inconvenience of canceling his R&R. ”

  Damien nods, taking it all in. “Who else?”

  I open the next folder. “Allison Monro. ”

  “She did the Petri Museum in Seattle. I’ve met her. ”

  “She’s also done some really interesting residential work that I think might translate to the island bungalows. ” I’m passing a photograph of one of Monro’s houses to Damien when his intercom buzzes.

  “I know you said no interruptions,” Rachel says, “but Mr. Steele is here. And since you’re already meeting with Ms. Brooks, I thought I should let you know that he’d like a moment of your time. ”

  I realize that I have frozen in place, my arm outstretched, my body tense. I’ve been that way since Rachel said his name.

  Damien looks at me, then takes the photograph, and the movement seems to break the spell. I sit back, hoping desperately that Damien cannot tell how violently my heart now beats against my rib cage.

  “All right,” Damien says as he puts the Monro photograph on the coffee table, right on top of the Phillip Traynor file. “Send him in. ”

  A moment passes, then another. Then the door opens and Jackson strides in.

  That morning, he’d told me that he intended to spend the day on his boat, working out of his office there on some minor projects that his New York staff is handling. So when Rachel announced him, I expected to see him in casual attire. Not swim trunks, but nothing more tailored than nice jeans and a starched button-down. Probably even with canvas shoes and windswept hair.

  But that is not the man who enters.

  Jackson strides into Damien’s office as if he owns it, and he’s certainly dressed for the role. He wears a charcoal gray Armani suit with a crisp white shirt and an arctic blue tie that almost perfectly matches the color of his eyes. It’s the uniform of a corporate warrior, and Jackson has come to do battle.

  He moves toward us without hesitating, apparently unperturbed that Damien has not risen in greeting. He stops at the edge of the oriental rug that defines this area of Damien’s huge office, then inclines his head. “Stark,” he says, then turns to me without waiting for a reply. He takes two steps toward me, then takes my hand and very gently kisses my fingertips. “Sylvia. I’m very glad you’re here. ”

  His eyes linger on mine for a moment, but though I search his face for a hint of what is to come, I see nothing. He is cool and confident and holding his cards very, very close to the vest.

  Damien indicates an empty chair. “Please. Have a seat. ”

  “I prefer to stand. ”

  “Suit yourself. ” He leans back in his own chair, his control just as intact, his expression just as unreadable. And in that moment, it finally strikes me that, yes, these two men really are brothers. “What can I do for you, Steele?” Page 40

  “You can let me back on the resort. ”

  Damien steeples his fingers beneath his chin. “And why would I do that?”

  “Because you made a mistake when you fired me. ”

  “Did I? Or are you just hoping to coast on a misplaced belief that I’m going to be swayed by familial loyalty?”

  “Not hardly,” Jackson says, taking a step forward. “As far as my work is concerned, family doesn’t mean shit. I’m here because I’m the best. You came to me because I’m the best. You wanted me on this project because of my vision and my talent, and yet you tossed me off for reasons that have nothing to do with my work. Honestly, Stark. You surprise me. ”

  “And yet you were the one who raised the issue of family. And not when you were brought on board—when it would have made rational sense to mention it. No, you waited, timing the revelation to suit your own purpose. ”

  “No purpose,” Jackson says. “No agenda. I told Sylvia because I didn’t want that secret between the two of us, but I’ve told nobody else, and I don’t intend to. And I told you because I couldn’t in good conscience expect her to keep that large a secret from the man who employs her. That was my purpose, Stark. Not because I want to start exchanging Christmas cards, and certainly not because I want any special consideration on this project or any other. My work stands on its own, or it doesn’t stand at all. ”

  For a moment Damien says nothing, but I think it is respect that I see on his face. Then he nods—just one simple incline of his head. “Go on. ”

  “This is a unique, innovative project. I’ll admit I didn’t want to be a part of it at first, but I’m invested now. I lost out on the deal in Atlanta because of you, Stark. I’m not losing Cortez, too. Not without a fight. ”

  I press my lips tight together. I know that Jackson blames Damien for the Brighton Consortium deal in Atlanta falling apart because Damien swept in and bought up key parcels of land. But Damien has told me that Jackson doesn’t have all the information, and that the deal was badly run. According to Damien, if he hadn’t stepped in, then Jackson and everyone else involved, including my old boss Reggie Gale, would have found themselves embroiled in a huge mess.

  I’m not entirely sure what “a huge mess” means, but my fear is that there was some sort of criminal real estate scheme going on, and I intend to ask Reggie the next time we meet for lunch. But I’ve told none of this to Jackson. I didn’t see the point until I knew what to tell him. Now, of course, I’m wishing I’d said something. And, honestly, I expect Damien to clear the air.

  Damien, however, says nothing, and during his silence, Jackson glances at me. His gaze lingers for less than a second, and yet even in that brief span of time I see the heat on his face. The need in his eyes.

  “I walked away once before from something that was important to me. ” He doesn’t look at me again, and yet I know without the slightest doubt that he is talking about me. “That was a mistake. I should have stayed. I should have fought. ” He cocks his head. “I’ve learned my lesson, Stark. You want me gone, I’ll go. But I’m not leaving until I’ve done my damnedest to convince you to let me stay. ”

  I realize I am holding my breath, and I try to fill my lungs without gasping. So far I’ve managed to fade into the seat cushion, but now Damien turns to face me, his expression entirely unreadable. I expect him to ask me to leave. Instead, he levers himself out of his chair and crosses to his window. He stands there for a moment, looking out at the world like a monarch surveying his kingdom.

  I want to look at Jackson, but I also don’t want to move. Right now, I am cautiously optimistic, and I’m afraid that even breathing wrong will shift the balance. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take. And so I stay as I am, looking forward, several files still clutched in my lap.

  After what feels like hours but is in fact less than a minute, Damien returns. He takes the Traynor and Monro materials from the coffee table, then hands them to Jackson. “We’ve identified possible replacements. All exceptional architects. All without baggage. ”

  “No one is without baggage,” Jackson says, and I am relieved to see the corner of Damien’s mouth twitch just slightly.

  “I’ll concede that point to you, Steele,” Damien says. “But I still want an answer. Why you and not them?”

  “I’m better. ” Jackson is looking directly at Damien, and his gaze never wavers.

  “You’re very confident. ”

p; “I am,” Jackson agrees. “I’m also very capable. ” Page 41

  Once again, Damien looks at me. “Ms. Brooks seems to think you’re the choice for the job, too. ”

  “She’s a very smart woman. ”

  “Yes,” Damien agrees. “She is. ”

  He goes to the bar, and returns with a single glass of scotch. He hands it to Jackson, then takes his own from the coffee table and raises it in a toast. “All right, Steele,” he says. “You’re in. Don’t make me regret it. ”

  Damien keeps me in his office after Jackson departs. We discuss resort management and the need to start recruiting and training top-level staff. We bounce ideas about advertising and promotion. We talk about recreation and whether we should keep dive instructors and a tennis pro on the full-time staff.

  All stuff that has to be addressed, of course, but none of it is time sensitive, and I honestly can’t decide if he’s keeping me in his office out of spite or in order to maintain a sense of normalcy.

  Or, possibly, he simply wants to clear stuff off his to-do list.

  “All right,” he says after the longest forty-five minutes of my life. “I guess that’s it for the day. Who’s on my desk tomorrow?”

  “Rachel. ” I stand and gather my things. “But I’ll be covering it on Monday. ”

  “Good. ” He meets my eyes. “She’s doing a fine job, Syl, but she’s not you. Then again, I suppose I’ll have to get used to that. I imagine I’ll be losing you to twenty-seven soon enough. ”

  “Will you?” I can’t keep the spark of interest out of my voice.

  He leans casually against his desk. “I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t have given you the project manager position if I didn’t believe that you could handle it. But handling and excelling aren’t the same thing. ”

  “Oh. ” I start to say thank you, but hold my tongue. Just to make certain I know where he’s going with this.

  “If you want to excel at something, you can’t let anything or anyone stand in your way. ” He nods toward the files I now hold in my hands. “You stood up for what you wanted today. That showed balls. ”

  “With all due respect, if you’d wanted to block me, there’s not a lot I could have done about it. ” I glance at him and smile wryly. “What with you owning the company and all. ”

  “Touché, Ms. Brooks. I’ll rephrase. You endeavored not to let anyone stand in your way. ”

  I cock my head, thinking about that. “Is that why you let Jackson back on? Because he did the same thing?”

  “That’s part of it. ” The admission surprises me.

  “And the rest?”

  “Because he’s the best damn architect working. ” He takes one more sip of his scotch. “I guess talent runs in the family,” he adds, and I bark out a laugh.

  I swallow the sound soon enough. “Are you going to go public? You having a half-brother, I mean?”

  He says nothing for a moment, and I wish I could take back the question. Then he sighs and swallows the whiskey that’s left in the glass. “Honestly? I don’t see that I have a choice. But I’d appreciate you asking Jackson to keep it quiet for the time being. I’d like to have some input from the PR team. For that matter, I’d like to get Evelyn’s advice. ”

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