On my knees, p.16
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       On My Knees, p.16

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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“Can she take care of Ronnie? I mean, if she’s not taking her meds?”

  “We’ve had a few heated discussions about that very thing. But I’m not family, so there’s not a lot I can do. Not legally, anyway. ” His voice is bitter. Harsh. After a moment, he looks straight at me. “Syl, I need to tell—never mind. ”

  I move to him and take his hand. “What?”

  “I just need to fix this—and I don’t know how. ”

  “Fix it? You mean, get Megan better? Back on her meds?”

  There is a long pause before he nods.

  “You can talk to her,” I suggest. “To her family. ”

  He draws a deep breath. “I do. But she swears she’s going to take them religiously. And she says she has enough help. ”

  “Does she?”

  “How much is enough? Megan’s grandmother helps out. And there’s some extended family in the area, too. ”

  “Arvin?”

  “No. ”

  I don’t ask. From the way Jackson said the word, I can guess that the circumstances surrounding Megan’s pregnancy didn’t meet with her father’s approval.

  “At any rate, now you know most of it. There’s more, of course. But the bottom line is that I want Reed to keep his nosy, voyeuristic ass away from the people I care about. ” He reaches for my hand. “Can you understand that?”

  “Yeah. ” I squeeze his fingers. “I do. And I really am sorry I was such a bitch earlier. ”

  He chuckles. “You weren’t. ”

  “Oh, I totally was. ”

  He moves his hand to my cheek and I lean against it, soaking in his warmth. I look up at his face, and his expression is fierce. “No,” he says. The word is firm.

  He sucks in air, then runs his fingers through his hair before pushing out of his chair and walking across the open space to a window that overlooks the open sea. He looks out at the darkness, and I can see the tension in his shoulders. I want to go to him, to hold him and help him ease his worry about his friends. But I force myself to stay seated. To wait until he’s said everything there is to say.

  “I don’t want to keep secrets from you. ” He is still facing the window, but now he turns. “I don’t. But at the same time, things will come out when they come out. Does that make sense? Do you understand?”

  “You know I do,” I say. “I said so when you told me that Damien is your brother. I don’t have a right to your secrets. And it’s wrong of me to get bitchy and make it worse for you. ” I think of my own secrets—painful ones that I’ve held close. That I haven’t yet shared with this man I love. This man I trust.

  I draw a breath for courage. “Honestly, I’m not really sure how much of today was even about you or Megan or any of those other women. I was in a pissy mood, and on any other day I might have actually handled the whole thing like a sane person. ”

  Immediately, his eyes sharpen. “Why? What happened?”

  “Nothing specific,” I lie. “Just a bad day. ”

  The truth is that I’ve realized that I do want to tell him everything about Reed and my dad and the whole shebang. I want to spill it all out. I want him to hold me close and soothe me and tell me that the storm inside me will subside. That he will help make it so.

  But I don’t want to tell him today. Not when I’ve just seen so much evidence of his own worries and fears.

  Mine can wait. They’ve already waited years. Another day won’t matter.

  He is watching my face, his expression knowing. “Now who’s the one keeping secrets?”

  “Me,” I admit. “But it can wait. ” I reach out and take his hand. “Truly. ”

  His brow furrows as he moves closer to me. He’s right there in front of me, and I can feel the power and concern radiating off him, and all of it is directed at me. “Don’t ever think that. ”

  I blink, confused. “Think what?”

  “That you need to pull your punches with me. ”

  “Pull my—what?”

  “Don’t think you have to coddle me if I’ve had a bad day. ”

  “I’m not,” I say, then realize it’s a lie the second the words spill out. “Okay, maybe I am, but what’s wrong with that? You want to take care of Megan and Ronnie, right? Well, I want to take care of you. ” Page 63

  “Sweet,” he says. “But it doesn’t work like that. ” He sits down again and tugs me into his lap. “You tell me what’s on your mind so that I can help you, too. ”

  He pulls me closer and I curl up against him, feeling warm and safe. Ironically, this was the way my dad used to cradle me in our big armchair. But that was when I was young. Before things went bad and I didn’t even want to look at him, much less touch him.

  “I don’t know where to start,” I admit.

  “The beginning is usually a good place. Or you could tell me what happened today. ”

  “My brother called. ” I draw a breath, relieved at how easy that was.

  “Ethan, right? The one moving home from London?”

  “He gets in Wednesday. I’m picking him up and driving him down to Irvine. ” I swallow, because just saying that makes my mouth go dry. “I was hoping you’d go with me. Because—well, because I don’t want to go alone. ”

  “Of course I will. ”

  “Thank you. ” My relief is so intense it almost knocks me over.

  Jackson is studying me, the concern evident in his eyes. “What happened with your parents, Sylvia?”

  I’m so used to not talking about it that I start to push the question away, even though I’ve already decided that I want to share my past with this man. I regroup, nod, and gather my thoughts.

  And then, slowly, I begin. “It … it was all okay when I was little. Good even. Normal. ”

  “So when did that change?”

  “When Ethan got sick. ” I stand up, because I really have to move, and I pace the length of the small table. “He was the most precious kid. Everyone adored him. My parents thought he hung the moon, and I didn’t mind, because I did, too. ”

  “You’re older?”

  I nod. “By just under three years. And my favorite thing in the world was taking care of him. Playing mommy, you know? I’d feed him, change him, play with him. And when he got older, we were best friends. ”

  I wait for Jackson to ask me what happened, but he is calmly watching me, clearly letting me go at my own pace.

  “About the time he was ten, he started getting into fights with the bigger kids at school. They were picking on him and—anyway, the reasons don’t matter. The point is that the bruises didn’t heal as fast as my mom expected. So she took him to the doctor. ”

  “What was wrong with him?”

  “Nothing,” I say. “At least that’s what the pediatrician told us. So for a year, nothing happened. By the time my parents found out that it was an aggressive and rare blood disorder that attacks the organs, a lot of damage had already been done, and they said he’d probably only survive a few more years. ”

  “Oh, Syl. ”

  “It was horrible, and I was so scared, and suddenly he was getting weaker every day. I would wake up and it would be like he’d faded in the night. ” I squeeze my eyes shut, not wanting to remember. “And it felt like we were just waiting for him to die. ”

  A shudder runs through me, and Jackson is on his feet in an instant, his arms tight around me. I burrow against him, letting his strength push back these horrible memories.

  “But he’s alive,” Jackson says gently. “How did he get better?”

  “Money. ” My face is pressed against his chest, and the word is muffled. I force myself to lean back so that I can look up at him. “The doctors all said there was nothing we could do. The damage was done, and there was no cure, anyway. But my mom was relentless. She heard about an experimental drug—K-27—and she applied for the trials. They wouldn’t take him—I don’t know why. I think it was because he was too young, which is stupid because he was
dying anyway. ”

  I force myself to stay on track. “My mom learned about a doctor in Central America. He was using K-27 to treat patients like my brother, along with some other drugs in a cocktail. And according to everything she learned, his patients were getting better. Like, completely better. ”

  “The damaged organs?”

  “Repaired. Somehow this drug encouraged the growth of healthy tissue to replace the bad, necrotic spots. ”

  “She got your brother to this doctor,” Jackson says, continuing the story.

  “Yes. ”

  “But it was expensive. ”

  I meet his eyes. His are sad, and it’s clear he has some idea where this story is heading. “Yes. Very. And my mom didn’t work. And my dad was just a technician for one of the studios. A cool job that paid well and had great Hollywood perks—but nowhere near the kind of money that he needed. ” Page 64

  “That’s where you came in. ”

  “He was asking everyone if they had extra work for him, and Reed used to do some of the on-set photography during shoots. Production photos, candids to use during press junkets, that kind of thing. He told my dad he did model shoots on the side. That he was looking to build up that end of the business. He’d seen me before—Dad took me to work with him a couple of times and got me on the set—and told Dad that he could use me. ”

  I push away from him, because I have to move. I can’t stand still and talk about this. Because it was the first step to horror. But it was also the first step to saving my brother.

  I go to the window and look out, wishing that I didn’t have these memories. That I could just skip over the bad parts and be healed. But that’s not possible, and so I press on.

  “We got the money. ”

  “You got the money,” he says. He’s still by the table, as if understanding that I need space right now.

  “It was a lot of money,” I say. “It took about a year to earn enough. But I told myself that was okay, because it was for Ethan. And he’s better now, so it was worth it. What I did, I mean. It was worth it because it was for Ethan. ”

  I see my own pain reflected on his face, and then I see the decision—and it’s clear there’s no way he’s letting me stand over here by myself. He is at my side in seconds, and I slide gratefully into his arms.

  “My dad knew, of course. He never said specifically, but I told him I wanted to quit. That I’d model if we needed the money for Ethan, but I wanted to go to someone else. He told me that no one else would pay what Bob did. And that’s how I knew. My dad knew exactly what Reed was doing to me, and he was whoring me out. Damaging one child for the sake of another. ”

  Even as I say them, the words resonate with me—wasn’t that what Jeremiah did to Jackson? Sacrificed him at the altar of his brother.

  “Your mom?” Jackson asks. “Did she know?”

  “I don’t know. She just went along with whatever my dad said. And even though she saw Ethan’s bruises, she never saw my pain. ” I shrug. “I don’t—I don’t like being around either of them. I’m angry around them. Hard. I don’t like myself when I’m with them, and I don’t like the memories that come back. ”

  “And yet you’re going down there on Wednesday. ”

  “For Ethan. He doesn’t know any of this, and there’s no way I’m going to tell him. So he just thinks I had a teenage falling-out with our parents. ”

  “You don’t have to go,” Jackson says gently. “You can spend time with Ethan here. If he knows there’s a rift, he’ll understand. ”

  “Maybe. But he really wants me there. And there’s not much I wouldn’t do for him. ”

  Jackson is looking at me, and then he says, very slowly and very carefully, “Including letting a predatory photographer molest you?”

  The tears that I have been holding back burst out of me with the force of a breaking dam. “Yes. ” My voice is harsh. Choked. “I could have walked. I could have stopped. I could have done something—anything. But I didn’t. ”

  “Oh, baby. ” There is grief in his voice, but I don’t hear pity, and I am grateful.

  “I blame my dad, but it’s on me, too. ” My voice is shaky and thick with tears. “All this shit that has colored my life. It’s my fault, too. ”

  “No. ” The word resonates through me, as violent as an earthquake. “You were a child with a sick brother you loved. Your parents should have taken care of you, not used you. And none of it—none of it—falls on you. Christ. ”

  He pushes away from me, and I see the rage rising inside him. He wants to break something, that’s easy enough to see. And I think that given the slightest provocation he would reduce the furniture in this room to splinters.

  “Are you okay?” I ask, and he responds with a self-deprecating laugh.

  “Am I okay?” He closes the distance between us, and I can feel the power and heat—the rage and compassion—rolling off him. “Sweetheart, right now I only care about you. ”

  He brushes a kiss over my lips. It’s soft and it’s gentle. But I know that’s only an illusion. Inside him, there’s a volcano of my making, and I can’t help but wonder when it will explode.

  nineteen

  “Jackson. ”

  That’s all I say, but it’s enough. He scoops me up, then holds me tight against his chest, his strong arms as firm as iron bands. “Yes,” I murmur as my pulse kicks up simply from the rightness of being in his arms. “Whatever you need. However you need it. ” Page 65

  I expect it wild. Wicked. I imagine that he will spread me on the table and fuck me hard in a frenzied rush to drive out his own demons by banishing mine.

  By claiming me. By controlling me.

  I do not expect the sweetness of his kiss. The butterfly-soft touch of his lips against my eyes, my cheek, the corner of my mouth. “You,” he says, and the word is both gentle and firm. “All I need is to touch you. All I need is to make you feel. To take you softly and gently. And to make you forget. ”

  “Jackson, I—” But I can’t get any more out. My throat is too thick, and his name cannot slide past the emotion that fills me.

  He carries me down the stairs, pausing before he does to open a small control panel on the side of the stairs and press a button. I look at him with curiosity, but his mouth just curves up in an enigmatic smile. I know better than to ask—he’ll tell me when he’s ready. And I hold my tongue as we continue down toward his bedroom.

  It’s a small, narrow hallway with Jackson’s bedroom on one side and a guest room on the other. At the end of the hall is the bathroom—a simple toilet and shower. At the other end of the hall, just by where we are now standing at the foot of the stairs, is a storage closet. Or, at least, I had always assumed that it was a storage closet. Now, Jackson turns in that direction.

  “Where are we—?”

  But I stop talking the second he opens the door. It’s another bathroom, only this one is dominated by a luxuriously deep tub and beautiful, gleaming fixtures.

  The water is already running in the tub and the lights are dim. Soft music plays through speakers—a low, slow saxophone piece that I’m not familiar with, but that is sweetly seductive.

  “Oh my god,” I say. “How did I not know this was here?”

  “I’ve been having it remodeled. It’s still not quite ready,” he adds, pointing to some unpainted trim and some exposed wiring for light fixtures. “It’s been a work-in-progress, and once we got back together I wanted to wait until it was ready to show you. But I think it’s ready enough. ”

  “It’s fabulous,” I say, as he carries me to the tub and sets me on the side. It’s pushed up beside a wall of glass bricks against a blue background, and though I know that this is not an actual window to the sea, the color is such that it suggests the ocean beyond. The tub itself is surrounded by dark wood that forms a three-sided box, with steps leading up to the top where I now sit. Though the front has room only to sit on the ledge, both sides a
re as wide as a couch, providing a flat sitting area outside the tub.

  “Teak?” I ask, running my finger along the polished wood.

  Jackson nods as he begins to undress me, very slowly and very tenderly. He unfastens each button, then eases the blouse off my shoulders. Then he traces the swell of my breast against the line of my bra cup. I arch back, my body going limp from the pleasure of such sensual caresses. Gently, he reaches behind me and unclasps the bra. Then folds it and the shirt neatly on a nearby table.

  Now I am wearing only my skirt, underwear, and shoes. He moves down a step so that I am still seated on the edge of the tub, naked from the waist up, but he is below me on the second step. My body tingles in a state of sensual overload as the cool air from the room brushes against my bare left breast even while the heat rising from the bathwater teases my right.

  From below, Jackson caresses my calf, then eases my shoes off. He strokes a gentle finger under my foot, so light that it is almost a tickle, but instead sends sensual threads darting up my inner thigh to settle at my sex, making me tremble with anticipation and delight.

  He guides my feet to the step upon which he sits and tells me to stand, taking my hands to steady me. I do, and he releases his grip long enough to reach behind me and unzip my skirt. He tugs it down over my hips, taking my panties with it, so that I am now standing naked in front of him.

  His eyes drift slowly over me, and I force myself not to cross my arms over myself, but to simply let him look—and to enjoy the heat that I see on his face, and the knowledge that it is directed at me.

  “In,” he says, nodding at the tub.

  I step in slowly. The gently bubbling water is hot, but not scalding, and it’s scented with lavender. I breathe deep and let the water take me. When I’m submerged to my neck, I look up at Jackson. “Coming in?”

  I expect him to say yes, of course, and am surprised when he shakes his head.

  “But—”

  “Shhh. Close your eyes. ”

  I consider protesting, but I do as he says. I hear him moving behind me, then feel his hands upon my body, slick with some sort of oil. He rubs my shoulders and arms, his touch firm but gentle. He slides his hands down over my shoulders, then massage my breasts, and as he does, arousal swirls through me. Page 66

  “Stand up,” he says. “But don’t open your eyes. ”

  I comply, and while my damp skin cools in the touch of the air, he keeps me warm with the sensual strokes of his oil-soaked hands. Over my belly, my hips. Then down my thighs to where my calves continue beneath the water.

  He is not touching me sexually, and yet my body is on fire. My breasts feel tight and heavy. My nipples craving a nip of his teeth. My lips are parted, silently begging for a kiss. And the muscles of my sex throb and clench, desperate for penetration, even as my swollen, sensitive clit begs for his touch.

  He doesn’t satisfy, though. His hands slide up my thighs, yes. And though I shift my position so that my legs are parted—though I go so far as to actually whimper—he does not touch me intimately. Instead, his fingers stop their climb just shy of where I so desperately want to feel him. He’s teasing me, of course, taking me to the edge. Heightening my arousal.

 
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