On my knees, p.14
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       On My Knees, p.14

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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I frown. “No. Sorry, but no. But there is drama. Isn’t that enough?”

  He exhales loudly. “Look, I know how much they sacrificed when I was a kid. And I know some of that lashed back on you. ”

  I hug myself, feeling suddenly cold. Lashed back? Hell, yeah, it lashed back.

  “I just can’t help but feel like this rift between you and them is my fault. And it would make me feel a hell of a lot better if you’d just come, okay?”

  I close my eyes, because I know I’m going to cave. Because in so many ways he’s right.

  And in so many ways he’s wrong.

  But the biggest truth is that I’m not going to tell him the truth. So, yeah. Maybe I do need to suck it up. Page 54

  “Fine,” I say. “Dinner. But I’m not staying late. I’ve got to work on Thursday, and—”

  “Whatever you say, big sis. ”

  I frown, but it’s affectionate. “I love you even if you are a pain in the butt. ”

  “Of course you do. See you Wednesday. ”

  I end the call, then head to the reception desk to ask Karen if anyone called while I was tied up. Since I’m approaching from behind her, I can see her computer—and that she’s scrolling through the pictures of me, Jackson, and Cass. Not to mention Graham Elliott. Yesterday I saw her looking at some of the old ad photos of me that are circulating.

  Wow, gee. How great is that?

  “Oh. Hey. ” She coughs as she clicks her computer back to a word processing screen. “Need anything?”

  “Yeah,” I say. “I think I need a coffee. ” And since that is absolutely true, I head down to the lobby for caffeine and the chance to clear my head.

  My parents. My pictures.

  For a day that had started out great, it’s going downhill fast.

  sixteen

  Even though it is days before I have to see my parents, just the conversation with Ethan has made me antsy. And though I like to think that I’m capable of standing on my own two feet, the truth is that I balance a lot better when I have Jackson beside me.

  So instead of heading straight to the lobby, I detour to twenty-six. The construction crew and Lauren are there, but Jackson is not. When Lauren tells me he had an errand to run outside the building, I remember that we left his car at Westerfield’s. Considering how much he babies the Porsche, I’m certain he went to fetch it.

  Without a coffee companion, I continue down to the lobby on my own. It’s a swift descent, but I still have enough time to chastise myself for being edgy and out of sorts. After all, it’s not as though anything has changed. Ethan told me over a week ago that he was coming, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing my little brother.

  But now that his arrival is closer, it’s harder to ignore the fact that I’m going to be seeing not only him, but my parents. I’m going to have to sit at the dining room table in their house. I’m going to share wine and Mom’s meat loaf. And I’m going to have to make conversation with my dad.

  That would be gut-wrenching enough all by itself. But it’s a billion times worse now that my past is assaulting me from all angles, with Reed in the news and old advertisements featuring my likeness popping up all over the place.

  Hell, even Jackson is a reminder, because now every time the press mentions him—even if it’s not in connection to the resort—it’s Architect Jackson Steele, recently sentenced to community service for his assault on producer-director Robert Cabot Reed. And I hate, hate, hate that their names are now linked in the public’s mind.

  And, goddammit, in mine.

  The line at Java B’s is long, but they also have an outdoor coffee cart that I can see through the glass front of the building, and despite it being a gorgeous day, there are only three people waiting to order. Since that seems like as much of an invitation to enjoy the day as I’m likely to get, I head out. I end up with an extra-large latte and a chocolate chip cookie that is about the size of a salad plate. I will either keel over from sugar shock or be so hyped up for the rest of the day that I accomplish all my tasks without even blinking.

  I’m hoping for the latter. After all, if I’m busy burning through my various work tasks, I’ll have no time to think about the impending torment of a visit with my family.

  The cookie is about the best thing ever, and I have to talk myself out of buying another one as I stand and crumple my napkin. The only trash can is by the coffee cart, and as I head in that direction, I’m facing the loading area, a small section of road set off from the main traffic flow along South Grand Avenue to allow for cars to pick up and drop off passengers at Stark Tower.

  I’m not really looking for anything in particular, but as I’m turning to head back toward the building entrance, something familiar catches my eye. I shift back around, and see that it is Jackson. He is standing by the passenger door of a small, red sedan.

  I take a step toward him, but then he opens the door, and a tall, slender redhead steps out. She’s familiar and vibrant and lovely, and she puts her hands on Jackson’s shoulders and brushes his lips with a kiss.

  My delicious cookie suddenly turns to acid in my stomach. Because I know this woman. True, I’ve never formally met her. But I know her name. I know he cares about her. And I also know that he has slept with her.

  Megan.

  I stand frozen to the spot, as if my feet are anchored by the weight of my jealousy. Page 55

  He hands her the keys and she circles the car, then gets in on the driver’s side and pulls away.

  Jackson starts walking toward the building, and I pivot back toward the coffee cart, then reach out and grab the edge of the condiment bar because I’m now feeling even more unsteady than I was after the conversation with Ethan.

  Megan.

  Megan?

  I’d seen her at the premiere of Stone and Steele, the documentary about Jackson and his work on the Amsterdam Art and Science Museum, but that was weeks ago. I hadn’t met her then, though. I’d only seen her from a distance, first approaching Jackson, and then as the two appeared in heated conversation.

  After that, she’d been gone. I’d had no idea who she was, and it hadn’t really seemed relevant. At least not until I’d seen a picture of her with a darling little girl hanging in Jackson’s houseboat.

  Hanging on his bedroom wall in the houseboat.

  He’d told me that she was a friend. That they’d slept together once, but that had been a one-off. A mistake. And I got that. After all, I’d slept with Cass once, but that didn’t mean we were ever a couple or that anything was still going on.

  But if what he said was really true, then why hadn’t he told me she was still in town? Why had she kissed him so intimately?

  And why did it suddenly feel as if the world as I knew it was shifting beneath my feet?

  “Syl?” His voice, as warm and gentle as a summer breeze, drifts toward me from a few feet behind me. I stay put, motionless, then close my eyes and draw in a breath when his hand closes over my shoulder. “Coffee break?” He brushes a kiss to the back of my ear. “Good idea. ”

  I turn to face him, then realize that I’m still holding the coffee I’d bought at least fifteen minutes ago. “I—no. I’m done with it. ” I lick my lips and toss it into the trash, even though there’s still half a latte left.

  I start to head back toward the building, and Jackson falls in step beside me. If he realizes my mood is off, he doesn’t show it. And though I should be grateful, that little blip of reality has the opposite effect. It pisses me off. Because, dammit, Jackson knows me. Hasn’t he always been able to read me?

  And if he can’t read me now, doesn’t that mean that his head is full of another woman?

  Oh my god, I’m turning into Super Bitch.

  I pause just before we get to the revolving door that is the entrance to Stark Tower. “I was looking for you earlier. We’re having dinner tonight with Damien and Dallas Sykes. Nikki and Aiden, too. ”

  “All
right,” he says. “What time?”

  “Seven. Just down the street at Cut 360. ”

  The conversation seems strange and stilted, but I can’t tell if that’s because something is truly off, or because I’m filtering it through my own little cloud of angst.

  “Sounds good. Why don’t you come down about six forty-five. We’ll walk over. Should be a nice night. ”

  I nod. And then, before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “You weren’t in your office earlier. ”

  “No,” he says. “I went out. ”

  “So I gathered. Where’d you go?”

  “Nowhere special. ”

  “With Megan. ” I try to sound normal, but my voice is flat.

  He looks at me, and his head tilts just slightly. I think his eyes might have narrowed, but that may just be my imagination. “Yes,” he says evenly. “With Megan. ”

  We’re blocking pedestrian traffic, and a tall man in a very expensive suit shoots me an irritated glance. I don’t care. Because now I’m certain the conversation is stilted, and I don’t understand it and, dammit, it scares me. Because this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Not between me and Jackson. Not ever.

  I force a casual tone. “I didn’t realize she was still in town from the documentary. ”

  “She came back. ”

  “You never did tell me what you two were arguing about at the premiere. ”

  He meets my eyes. Mine, I’m sure are needy. His are as cold as arctic ice. “No, I guess I didn’t. ”

  He might as well have slapped me. “You know what, Jackson, screw it. ” I see him take a step back as if in defense against a blow, but I’m too far gone to care. “You want to hold on to your secrets, then you just fucking do that. ”

  I storm off, feeling like an idiot, and not at all sure if he’s the one who’s off or if I am.

  Back in my cubicle, I try to concentrate. Try, but don’t succeed.

  I know that I’m being jealous, but dammit, I don’t care. I wanted him today—needed him. And he wasn’t there. Because he was with the one woman other than me that he’d not only slept with, but that he’d cared about. Page 56

  So, yeah, maybe it’s stupid or bitchy or unfair, but I’m going to wallow. Because so long as I’m pissed off and moody about this, then at least all the shit with my father and brother stays buried under a load of irrelevant angst.

  Fuck.

  “Bad day?”

  I spin around in my chair to find Karen standing at the edge of my cubicle holding a vase full of yellow roses.

  I grimace. “Did I say that out loud?”

  “Don’t worry. I’ve heard way more colorful language on the floor. ”

  “Sorry. And yeah, this isn’t the best of days. ”

  “Maybe these will help. ” She passes me the flowers. “They just came for you. ”

  “Really?” I suppose I should have clued in; it’s not like Karen wanders the halls with roses. But I guess I assumed she was walking them to the coffee station to fill the vase with water. “Who are they from?”

  But that’s a question that I ask only for form. Of course I know who sent them. And the heart that had been feeling so heavy flutters a bit in my chest.

  Just to be sure, I peek at the card.

  I’m just one floor away, but it feels like worlds apart.

  I’m sorry.

  J.

  I tuck the card in my purse, and smile at Karen. “You’re right. They helped. ”

  “Glad to hear it. ” She takes a step back toward the reception area, then pauses. “If Jackson shows up, should I send him straight back?”

  “Yeah,” I say. “You do that. ”

  I’m about to type out a quick sorry I was a bitch text, but before I even start typing, I get a call from Cass.

  “Hey, what’s up?” I ask.

  “That’s what I want to know,” she says. “Do I need to come over there and bitch-slap your boyfriend?”

  Either my best friend has completely lost it or—“What are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about the redheaded twit. Who is she? Have you seen this shit? Hang on. ”

  She’s rattling her words off so fast I can barely process them, and I’ve just opened my mouth to ask her to please slow down when she sends me a text with a website link.

  “Did it come through? Click on it. ”

  “Hang on. ” I don’t want to—I really don’t want to. Because whatever it is, it’s not going to be good. But I need to know, and so I click. And then, yes, I curse.

  “Oh, fuck. ”

  The site is one of the eight billion celebrity gossip sites. But this one is operated like social media. So someone can start a story, and then site members can add to it with comments or photos. This one starts with an image of Jackson, his head bent close to Megan’s, his face full of so much affection that I really just want to throw up.

  There’s a headline, too. Starchitect Jackson Steele: Hollywood’s newest member of Club Bad Boy?

  “Oh, god,” I say.

  “I’m so sorry,” Cass says. “Do you know her?”

  But I’m too busy checking out the images and text that follow the headline to answer. There are five pictures. The first of me and Jackson at Westerfield’s. Beneath that is another image from last night, only this one shows me and Jackson with our arms around Cass as we lead her to the limo. The last three images are of Jackson and Megan. The first is what I saw an hour ago—her kissing him in front of Stark Tower. The second is the two of them seated across a table from each other, apparently having lunch. And the final one shows the two of them on the deck of his boat. It was obviously taken with a long lens from the dock. They’re facing each other, his hands are on both of her shoulders, and from the angle, it looks like he’s about to pull her to him and catch her in one hell of a lip-lock.

  And the most horrible thing? I recognize the green flag of the yacht that’s moored right next to them. Because it arrived this morning as Jackson and I were leaving for work. Which means that this fucking photograph was taken today. Today.

  “This isn’t—” I try to form a sentence, but my brain is frozen. All of me is frozen. I’m cold. So very, very cold. “It can’t be—”

  “I sure hope the hell not,” Cass says. “I mean, they’re making shit up about the three of us, so hopefully the crap about the redhead is bullshit, too. ”

  “Her name’s Megan. ” I sound shell-shocked. “What do you mean the three of us?”

  She answers me, but I don’t even hear her words. They’re just so much background noise. Because I’ve found what she’s talking about all on my own. The text under the headline that talks about how Jackson is working for Damien. About how he’s new to Hollywood, and he’s settling right in. Getting into fistfights. Fucking lots of women. Me. Me and Cass as a nice little girl-boy-girl sandwich. And this new woman that the writer can’t yet identify, but who Jackson took back to his boat after an intimate lunch for an even more intimate dessert. Page 57

  This can’t be right.

  I scroll down and find images of Jackson with other women, all taken over the course of the last five years. There aren’t many—it’s not like he’s some mega movie star and the paparazzi is glued to him—but whoever wrote this article did their homework, and for each gala Jackson has attended, there is a different woman on his arm. And the commentary makes clear that Jackson pretty much fucked his way across the United States, and is continuing to do exactly that. With Megan. With me. And with God only knows who else.

  “Don’t completely freak until you talk to him,” Cass warns, which is a little ironic considering she’d called me in full freak-out mode, and I tell her as much. “I know, I know. And I’m sorry. It’s just—well, I like Jackson, but I love you, and I don’t want you to get hurt. And I swear if he does hurt you, I will cut his balls off with a hacksaw. ”

  I cringe. But I don’t disagree.
<
br />   “You’re going to talk to him, right?”

  “Yeah,” I say. I don’t say when, but I know it won’t be soon. Right now, I’m feeling just a little too raw.

  “Okay, listen, my four o’clock just walked in. But you call if you need me. ”

  I promise that I will, then end the call. I sit and stare at the computer screen and then—because that really isn’t helping my mood—reach over and turn off my entire goddamn computer.

  Shit.

  How the hell could a day that started out so well have spiraled down so quickly?

  I stare at the vase of flowers on my desk—lovely roses that should add some cheer to my day, but instead are only making me miserable. “Fuck. ”

  I pick up the vase, and before I can talk myself out of it, I drop the whole thing—glass and flowers and water and all—right into my trash.

  It’s not as cathartic as I’d hoped, but I do feel slightly better.

  The truth is that I should just haul my rear downstairs and talk to him, but I feel too ripped up inside. I’m afraid that I’ll start shouting at him. Or, worse, that I’ll burst into tears. I need time to get my shit together. I need to not think about Jackson or Megan or those stupid photos and just let it all settle.

  And since the best way to do that is to lose myself in my work, I turn the computer back on, pull up my phone list, and start returning calls.

  That’s what I’m doing when he arrives, as silent as a cat. But it doesn’t matter. I know he’s there, and the band around my heart that had started to loosen tightens once again.

  “I look forward to getting your proposal,” I say into the phone, then hang up. I wait one beat, then another. Then I swivel in my chair to face him.

  I don’t want it to, but the sight of him takes my breath away.

  He’s not dressed any differently than he was earlier. Casual slacks and a button-down shirt, the top two buttons open to expose the indentation at the base of his neck. Nothing special about the outfit. Nothing formal about his posture. On the contrary, he is leaning negligently against my cubicle wall.

  But it is the expression on his face that has knocked me flat. Passion and penitence and desire so strong it almost pulls me out of my chair. So help me, I want to enfold myself in his arms and press my head against his chest. Because isn’t Jackson the one person who has always been able to make me feel better? Who can soothe and reassure me?

  Not today.

  Today, I have no one.

  Today, I steel myself as I look him in the eye. “This really isn’t a good time. ”

  He glances down, and I cringe as I realize that he’s looking right at the flowers in my trash. I start to rise—I want to explain—but I force myself to stay seated. Right now, I’m not the one who needs to apologize or explain. Jackson is. And if this evidence of how frustrated and pissed I am doesn’t prompt him, then maybe nothing will.

  When he lifts his head and looks at me again, his eyes are flat and unreadable, just like his expression. Only the tightness in his jaw—as if he is clenching his teeth—evidences his dark mood. And it is only because I know him so well that I can see his rising temper. “I’ll let you get back to work. ” The words are flat and measured and completely cold.

 
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