On my knees, p.15
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       On My Knees, p.15

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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“Jackson—” His name is past my lips before I can call it back, and I sit there, slightly flummoxed, because I don’t know what I intended to say.

  He had taken a step backward, but now he pauses.

  I curse myself, because I am not ready to talk about this. So I just say, “Seven o’clock. Don’t forget. I’ll see you at the restaurant. ”

  He meets my eyes and holds my gaze for a moment longer than is comfortable. “Seven,” he finally says. Then he turns and walks away. Page 58

  And though I rise and watch him move toward the stairwell, Jackson never once looks back.

  seventeen

  “Considering you’re the man of the hour, you’re awfully damn quiet, Jax. ” Dallas Sykes leans back in his chair and pushes his dinner plate away before polishing off his third martini. The department store magnate is pretty much the walking definition of a sexy bad boy, complete with half-naked women often found draped casually over his arm. Jackson and I both crossed paths with him when our trip to the Cortez site fueled gossip, and we ended up in the tabloids alongside Dallas and his very married girlfriend.

  “It’s Jackson, and I apologize. I have a lot on my mind. ” He doesn’t look at me. Not that I expect him to. We’ve been managing to not look at each other for the last ninety minutes, ever since we arrived separately at the restaurant.

  We’re at a round table, and I’d taken the chair next to Nikki. Aiden had to cancel dinner—apparently Trent took a long weekend, but there are issues at the Century City project that require immediate attention—so that means that we are at a five-top. Nikki, Damien, and I arrived first, and when Jackson came a few moments later, he had the choice of the seat next to me, or the seat next to Damien.

  He chose to sit next to me. And though I have avoided his eyes all evening, I can’t avoid the tension that fills the air between us, so thick that I am amazed that no one else is drawn into it, like a black hole that sucks in everything that drifts too close.

  I try my best to steer the conversation toward the resort in general. But Dallas—one of the primary investors—has heard it all before, and keeps his focus laser-sharp on Jackson.

  “Bet you never knew you’d be such a celebrity when you were sketching your way through your childhood. ” He grins. “I saw your documentary. ”

  Jackson smiles politely. “I hope you found it interesting. ”

  “Fascinating,” Dallas says. His eyes are as green as Jackson’s are blue, and he looks so earnest, that I can’t help but wonder if the bad boy, playboy thing is an act. The man is managing a multi-billion dollar company and doing a damn fine job. Plus, he’s no slouch intellectually. So what’s his story?

  That’s going to remain a mystery, of course. It’s very bad form to poke into the personal lives of your investors. At least it is if you want them to keep investing.

  The general topic of bad boys, however, is very much on the table as Dallas leans closer to Jackson. “I have to say, I thought I had one hell of a reputation for playing fast and loose. But you certainly did a number on that Reed guy. I gotta know. What was that about?”

  “Just having a bad day. ” I can almost see the tension pouring out of Jackson, like a red haze staining the air.

  “We’ve started thinking about retail on the resort,” I say brightly to Dallas. “We want to keep it very high-end, boutique oriented, but I thought you and I should sit down at some point and talk about you possibly opening a retail space. ”

  “Happy to,” he says. “It’s the celebrity thing that gets me,” he continues to Jackson, undaunted. “Documentary. Feature film. I saw the pictures with you and Graham Elliott. Hell, you could star in the thing if you wanted. You’ve got the look. ”

  “Dallas,” Damien says firmly. “I think that considering the fact that Reed still might file a civil action, we should not expect Mr. Steele to talk about this. ”

  My stomach twists. Now that the criminal case has been resolved, I thought the courtroom drama was over. And I can’t help but wonder if Damien knows something, or if he’s just trying to shut Dallas up.

  I hope it’s the latter. And, frankly, I applaud the effort.

  “Hey, we can drop it. I was just curious about the movie. Of course, if you do want to star in it, probably best not to beat the shit out of the producer. So what was that about? You just didn’t like the script? When’s it hitting theaters, anyway?”

  Beside me, Jackson’s posture stiffens. His left hand is in his lap, and now he moves it to my knee. He has barely brushed my skin when he seems to realize what he’s doing, and he yanks it away as if my body is on fire.

  I don’t even hesitate. I reach for him and clutch his hand with mine. Because no matter what else might be between us, I won’t have him be alone right now.

  “I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed,” Jackson says, his voice stiff but polite. His hand is clenched so tight with mine that I have to actually grit my teeth. “There’s not going to be a movie. ”

  “Uh-huh. ” Dallas has the look of a dog with a bone, and I’m certain that he’s going to pursue this line. Page 59

  Damien, thank goodness, comes to the rescue, asking Dallas about an arson claim in one of his Chicago-based stores. Apparently that arose from a huge drama between the store manager and a street gang, and Dallas is interested enough in the soap opera aspects to stay on point.

  As the conversation finally shifts away from Jackson, he eases up on my hand. And when the conversation shifts again, and Nikki mentions that Wyatt called her, Jackson releases me entirely.

  I deflate, as if that simple loss of touch is more profound than the distance that has been growing between us all afternoon.

  I force myself not to show it, though. Instead, I focus on Nikki. “Oh, good. I’m glad he called. I meant to tell you tonight. I called him this morning. We’re all set for Monday evening. ”

  “Hot date?” Dallas asks.

  “Photography lesson,” I say. “We had to postpone the last one. ”

  Nikki kisses Damien’s cheek. “It was worth it. ”

  Since Damien surprised her with New York theater tickets, I’m sure it was, and Nikki tells us all about the trip before we backtrack the conversation to planning the specifics for our Monday photography lesson. “I’ll meet you in Santa Monica,” she says. “Around seven? And then maybe Damien and Jackson can join us after for a drink?” She says the last with such a question in her voice that I am absolutely positive she has noticed the rift between Jackson and me.

  I’m about to say that it might not be the best night for socializing, when Jackson responds. “I think that’s a great idea. ” He looks at me as he speaks, his eyes soft with apology. And though I cannot say for certain that we will be fine come Monday, I do know that I am done being completely mad at him. It’s time to talk about this.

  And so I nod. “Yes,” I say. “It’s a great idea. ”

  I’m surprised to learn that Dallas knows a bit about photography, and we talk about Wyatt’s work, including his prints that hang on some of the Stark International walls. The conversation meanders from there to Damien’s tennis career and then back full circle to Jackson’s assault.

  This time around, however, Dallas isn’t quite as pushy. “I heard you were serving your community service at the Stark Children’s Foundation. ”

  “I start Sunday,” Jackson says. “There’s a fund-raiser that I’ll be working, and I’m looking forward to it. Not something most of us criminal types say about our community service obligations, but I’m glad to have the chance to work with the kids. And it is a good cause,” he adds, looking at Damien. “I should be volunteering for a place like that even without the gray cloud of incarceration hanging over my head. ”

  “You should,” Damien says. The foundation, which helps abused and at-risk kids through sports therapy, is a relatively new charity that Damien founded, but one that I know means a lot to him. It means a lot to me, too, though I’v
e never told Damien why. But I identify deeply with the kids that he has set out to help.

  The waiter comes with a dessert menu, and the meal finishes easily, with the conversation never drifting back to anything too touchy. I skip dessert and opt only for coffee. And when we all finally head back outside, Jackson pauses at the restaurant’s valet stand and hands the college-aged attendant his ticket.

  “Dallas? Where are you heading?” Damien asks.

  He points generally to the left. “I’ve got a suite at the Biltmore,” he says. “Care for a nightcap?”

  “We would,” Damien says, his arm around Nikki’s waist. “Sylvia?”

  “She’s with me. ” Jackson turns his attention from Damien to me. “We have some things to discuss. About the resort,” he adds, though the addendum is clearly a lie.

  Damien nods and both he and Nikki say that they will see us at the fund-raiser on Sunday.

  I turn to Jackson. “I’m with you?”

  “I damn sure hope so,” he says. “Because having you not be with me is brutal. ”

  The valet arrives, then parks the Porsche in front of us and gets out, holding the door open for Jackson.

  Jackson steps to the passenger side and does the same for me. “Please, Syl. We need to talk. More than that, I think I need to apologize. ”

  I get in the car. Honestly, there was never any doubt.

  And though I don’t know what exactly we are going to say to each other, I do know that there are things that must be said.

  eighteen

  Traffic is light, and we manage to get from downtown to Jackson’s boat in less than half an hour. During the entire drive, Jackson says nothing, and we both just sit back, lost in the ear-blasting sounds of Dominion Gate, as Jackson continues to play the album we didn’t finish the other night during our drive to Westerfield’s. Page 60

  When we arrive at the marina, he maneuvers to his parking slot in front of the Veronica, kills the engine, and turns to me. “I miss you. And I’m sorry. ”

  I swallow, then blink back tears. “I need to hear you say it. Are you sleeping with her?”

  “No. ” The word is fast and harsh. “God, no. I told you. Once, and that was a long time ago. She’s a friend, Syl. She’s only a friend. ”

  I nod, then open my door. “Come on. ”

  He still looks a bit wary, but he follows me out of the car and then onto the boat.

  As soon as we’re on deck, I go to him. I slide my arms around his waist and press my cheek against his chest. His arms surround me, and I breathe deep, feeling content for the first time in hours. We stay like that, feeling the boat sway beneath our feet, until I finally pull away, then go to sit on one of the lounge chairs.

  “Is that all that’s bothering you?” he asks. “Megan?”

  I shake my head, trying to articulate what I haven’t even really worked out in my own head. “I was pissed,” I admit. “Because when I met you in front of the office, it was clear you were keeping secrets. And—no,” I say as he starts to speak. “Let me get this out. And I didn’t like the way I felt when she kissed you. I—I was jealous. ” I lick my lips. “And then I saw the other pictures. ”

  His brow furrows. “What other pictures?”

  “On social media. You on the boat with Megan today. And you with other women you’ve dated over the last few years. Usually at parties and stuff. ”

  “I haven’t seen them. ”

  “No? Well, they pissed me off. And I know that it’s stupid, and I know that we weren’t together then. And I know that you told me they didn’t mean anything to you—”

  “I told you that because I meant it. ”

  “I know. You just fucked them. Except for Megan, you didn’t care about them. Not like that. I get it. I really, really do. ” I shrug. “But I’m still jealous. Especially when I think about, you know, the other stuff. ”

  “Other stuff?”

  I can feel my cheeks turning pink, which pisses me off because I don’t want to be embarrassed or uncomfortable. I want to keep a tight grip on this conversation, and I’m afraid that I’m doing a piss-poor job of that. “You like control, Jackson. And we’ve done stuff. In bed, I mean. And I like it—I do. I like it a lot. ” As I speak, I’m rubbing my wrists, thinking about the leather cuffs he’d used on me not so very long ago. “And you’ve got that whole trunk of stuff in your bedroom, and I don’t think it’s been sitting there just waiting for me to come along like Christmas Day, and I can’t help thinking of all the other—shit. ”

  I cut myself off because I’m saying too much. And honestly, I didn’t intend to say any of this. Hell, I hadn’t even fully processed any of this until I started talking. All I know is Megan. Jealous. Other women. Jealous.

  Apparently I have unplumbed jealous depths. Who knew?

  Jackson has been sitting beside me on the lounger, but now he moves to kneel in front of me. He rests his hands on my knees, and the contact is warm and comforting. “There’s only you. There has only ever been you. Even before I met you, it was just you. ” His smile is a little crooked. “And there will only ever be you. ”

  He leans forward, then kisses me softly. “Wait here. ”

  My lips are still tingling as he descends below deck. I have no idea what he is doing, and so when he comes back up carrying the trunk, I actually gasp with surprise. “Jackson?”

  He looks at me just long enough to smile, and then he moves to the side of the boat and—before I have time to realize what he’s doing—he drops the entire trunk over the side of the boat.

  “Jackson!” I leap to my feet and hurry to his side, just in time to see the dark water settle. I turn to him. “Why—”

  “Only you,” he repeats, then pulls me to him. “And I assure you, we’ll have a very good time filling a new trunk. ”

  I can’t help it—I laugh. But when the laughter fades, I have to shake my head. “I don’t like this part of me. The jealous part. It’s shrewish and icky and all sorts of things I don’t like. But I don’t want to lose you. And I see things like that. Pictures. Or you keeping secrets. And I just get scared and twitchy, and I’m sorry. ” I take a deep breath, because those words spilled out of me fast and furious.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was going out with Megan today. ” Page 61

  “No, no. I’m the one who’s sorry. Really. I was just being bitchy. And I’m sorry. ”

  “Oh, baby. ” He strokes my cheek. “Come with me. ”

  He takes my hand and leads me below deck to the small galley. I sit at the table, and he comes to join me, bringing a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a box of Chips Ahoy cookies. He takes one, then holds out the box to me. I don’t really need it, but I take it anyway, then take a tiny bite as Jackson leans back in his chair and starts to speak.

  “I didn’t know Megan had come back to town,” he says. “She went home after the screening, and I just assumed she was still in Santa Fe. ” He pauses to wash his cookie down with wine. “She called before lunch. Said she was downtown and needed to talk. Her husband died about a month ago. ”

  “Oh. ” Now I feel even more like a bitch. “I’m sorry. ”

  “It’s been … hard on her. ” He sighs and presses his fingertips to the bridge of his nose. “I told you she was a friend, and that’s true. But it’s not just Megan I’m close to, it’s the whole family. Especially Ronnie. ”

  “The little girl. ”

  “She’s three going on thirteen. ” His smile is broad and it’s clear he adores her. “Smart as a whip and as sweet as she can be. She’s—” He drags his fingers through his hair, and I can’t help but think that he looks completely exhausted. He shakes his head and smiles sadly. “She’s a very special kid. ”

  I frown, because his words don’t match the sadness I see on his face and hear in his voice. “Something’s wrong. ” I get out of my chair and circle the table until I’m beside him and leaning against it. “
What’s happened? Is Ronnie okay?”

  “Yes, yes. Ronnie’s fine. It’s Megan. ” He takes a deep breath, then drains the last of his wine. He runs his fingertip over the rim idly as he speaks, and I don’t think he’s even aware that he’s doing it. “You asked why I don’t want the movie made. Well, Megan’s a big part of the reason. ”

  “Megan?” I don’t understand what this redhead has to do with a movie about a house Jackson built in Santa Fe.

  Santa Fe.

  “It’s her house? She’s a Fletcher?” The Santa Fe house—the one that pretty much launched Jackson’s career—was commissioned by Arvin Fletcher.

  Jackson nods. “He’s her dad. ”

  “Oh. ” Arvin Fletcher is one of the biggest land developers in the country. He started out ranching in New Mexico and was smart about his investments. He’s not worth as much as Damien, but I bet it’s close. And when he hired a then relatively unknown architect to build him a residence just outside of Santa Fe proper, he put Jackson on the map. Afterward, the house grew in notoriety. Because one of Fletcher’s three daughters murdered her twin and then killed herself. Megan, I realize, is the surviving sister.

  Wow.

  I stand and start to pace, trying to get my head around this. “So you don’t want the movie to happen because you’re close to this family. Fletcher gave you a huge break and you want to protect them?”

  “That’s part of it. But only a small part. Megan’s bipolar. She’s a lot of things, actually, but that’s the easiest label. She’s been steady for years—the drugs help and she was good with Tony. But since his death, it’s been harder. She’s off-center, not taking her meds the way she should. ”

  “Oh. ” I’m not entirely sure what to say. “That’s a shame. ”

  “It’s a lot of things. That’s one of them. ” He presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “I worry about her raising Ronnie. And I worry about the press getting a peek at all the family skeletons. And they will, you know. If they make this movie, the family will become an open book. Even if the screenwriter doesn’t poke and prod, the media will. And I don’t want it to get out about Megan’s illness. About how bad it can get. Or about the fact that Amelia had issues, too. ”

  “She’s the one who killed herself and her twin?”

  He exhales, then nods, but it’s clear that talking about this upsets him. “Yes. She shot Carolyn. Megan is their older sister. ”

  “The script suggests Amelia went crazy because of you,” I say gently. I haven’t actually read the script, but I heard that from Jamie who heard it from her Hollywood sources.

  His expression darkens. “She was infatuated, yes. But I wouldn’t want to guess as to why she did anything. ” Page 62

  I just nod, realizing that I’ve struck a nerve.

  “The bottom line is that I don’t want Ronnie growing up in the midst of high drama. She’s had enough trouble, and now with Tony passing it’s hard enough for Megan to focus. ”

 
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