On my knees, p.17
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       On My Knees, p.17

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
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And while I curse him, I can’t deny that it’s working. I am beyond turned on. So excited that it feels as though I am floating, all the more so because I am light-headed simply from the heat of this deep, wonderful tub.

  “Back in. But keep your eyes closed. ” He speaks in a whisper, as if this is a ritual, and it feels that way. As if he is worshipping me. Or readying me to present to an eager god. Either way, the focus is on me. On my pleasure. And I am delirious with the power of it.

  Once I’m back in the water, he has me sit on the lowest step so that the water hits my shoulders. He leaves me for a few moments, and when he returns, he tells me to tilt my head back, then uses a cup that I hadn’t noticed to sluice water over my hair before massaging my head with a rosemary-mint shampoo that makes my scalp tingle even as I breathe deep, then sigh with pleasure.

  His fingers are strong, and the pressure on my temples and at the base of my neck is just enough to keep me relaxed and happy, and when he rinses the lather out of my hair, I can’t help but wish that we could stay like that just a little bit longer.

  As if reading my mind, he massages conditioner into my hair, then gently combs through it, and I’m thankful my hair is short because it so rarely tangles, and the attention is wonderfully sensual rather than potentially painful.

  When I’m all bright and shiny and clean, he helps me out of the tub, finally letting me look around. I watch steam rise off my naked body as Jackson urges me to lay down on a towel he’s placed on the side of the tub, along with a small inflatable pillow. Along the edge, there are rows of tea candles, filling the room with a warm glow and soft shadows.

  “Jackson. ” I say his name on a breath. “The room looks magical. ”

  “Looks? Sweetheart, I want you to feel magical. Lay back. Close your eyes. ”

  “What if I want to see you?”

  “See me in your imagination, then. ”

  “I always do,” I admit, and am rewarded by both tenderness and heat shining in his eyes.

  “I want you to feel,” he says. “And I want the feelings to send you someplace extraordinary. ”

  He helps me down, so that I am on my stomach, my head turned sideways and my eyes closed. The towel I am on covers something soft, and I feel as though I am enveloped in warmth. My arms are at my sides, and the damp heat of the room is making me both sleepy and aroused, and the combination is surprisingly potent and erotic.

  He starts at my shoulders, using that same scented oil to stroke and massage, not too intense, but enough to be both soothing and relaxing. I’ve had a few sports massages, but none compared to this. His touch seems to fill me, and all of the stress of the day is just melting away under his persistent, incredible attention.

  Slowly, he massages my shoulders, then down lower until his hands are cupping my waist, then my hips. He moves lower still, his clever hands kneading my thighs, and I spread my legs, my body craving more. He doesn’t take the hint, however. Instead, he continues lower, rubbing my calf, and then repeating the process on the other leg, working his way slowly up until his fingertips are teasing the sensitive skin between my ass and the top of my thigh.

  I am a warm bundle of contentment, and it only gets better when he—yes, finally—eases my legs apart. I’m so wet, so aroused, and the brush of air over my sex makes me moan, and that sound turns even deeper and more needful when his oiled hand slides down between my legs to stroke me, his fingers sliding almost lazily into me.

  But I want more, and I push back, trying to make the contact harder, deeper. I’m so turned on, and I am craving release, and the only word that fills my mind is please. Please, please, please.

  I don’t even know that my lips have moved or that I have spoken, but I must, because he turns me over, and my legs are spread wide and he’s telling me not to open my eyes. To just float. To just feel. Page 67

  What I’m feeling is his fingers inside me again. Thrusting hard. Thrusting deep.

  And his body above me, his clothes brushing my bare skin, the cotton rubbing my sensitive nipples. He brushes a kiss over my lips and I whimper when it is all too short.

  He starts trailing kisses down even as his fingers continue to stroke me, to tease me. Lower and lower, deeper and faster. His mouth on my breasts, on my belly. His tongue teasing my nipple while my hips arch in wild abandon as he finger-fucks me hard and deep.

  Then his mouth is there, his tongue dancing over my clit, and oh my god, he’s right, it’s magical, because I swear that I am rising up, carried away on a storm of golden pixie dust as these sensations that had started so warm and tender have turned hard and hot and demanding and oh so very wonderful.

  And then the spell shatters, breaking me apart, sending bits of me swirling off as electricity seems to arc through me, making me sizzle and glow and cry out from the wonderful, incredible, overwhelming pleasure of it all.

  “Oh god. ” I am gasping, trying to catch my breath. “Jackson—oh, dear god, Jackson. ”

  “Hush,” he says, and I realize that while I’ve been off in another dimension, he has picked me up. He’s holding me close, and my arms are around his neck. I’m completely exhausted, and sleep is pulling me under. He’s carrying me out of this truly exceptional bathroom and down the hall to his bedroom. He slides me into the bed, then gently tucks the covers around me.

  Then he takes off his own clothes, and though my eyes are drooping, I can see his erection. I try not to drift too far, because I expect another round. An intimate touch. After all, he is so hard that he must be about to burst. But that touch doesn’t come, and I roll over so that I am facing him and blink sleepily. “But don’t you want—”

  He presses his fingertip to my lips. “Right now,” he says as he pulls me closer, “I have everything I want in the world. ”


  “This,” Cass says, stepping back from the overstuffed clothing rack and holding up what looks like nothing more than some see-through pink gauze with a shiny, sequined band.

  I cock my head. “What is that supposed to be?”

  “A harem girl outfit. Duh. ” She holds it by the sequined band, which apparently would sit on the unfortunate wearer’s hips. As far as I can tell, though, there is no top. Not even a sparkly festive one a la Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie.

  When I mention that to Cass, she just shrugs. “Maybe they’re going for authenticity?”

  “Maybe, but I’m not. Veto. ”

  From a few racks over, Jackson looks up. “Don’t I get a say?”

  “Absolutely not. ”

  We’re spending Saturday morning doing our Halloween shopping. Right now, we’re in Burbank at a consignment store that sells mostly old costumes from various television shows. I don’t know what show that came from, but it wasn’t that classic sixties sitcom.

  “It’s Halloween,” Jackson says. “I think a harem girl is a great idea. ”

  “You just want to see me half-naked. ”

  “It’s expedient,” he says. “Less to deal with once I get you home. ”

  “Goodness, Mr. Steele. ” Cass fans herself. “How you make a girl blush. ”

  “Cassidy, I may not have known you for long, but from what I can tell, there’s very little that makes you blush. ”

  She looks at me. “I’m not sure if I should be insulted or impressed with how astute he is. ”

  “Impressed,” I assure her. “Definitely impressed. ”

  A few more moments pass, and then Jackson calls me over. “What do you think?” He is holding up a tiny pink cowboy hat and a matching tiny pink denim jacket.

  “I’m petite,” I say, “but that’s toddler size. ”

  “Thanks for the tip. I was thinking about Ronnie. ”

  “Oh!” I’m now with the program. I think of the dark-haired little girl I’ve seen only in a photograph. “I think she’d be darling in it, but Halloween’s just a week away. In my experience, parents usually have toddler costumes l
ined up about eight months before the blessed event. ”

  “In that case, it can just be for dress up. At any rate, it’ll be fun to give it to her tomorrow. She loves presents. ”

  “Who doesn’t? But what’s tomorrow?”

  “She’s still in town with Megan—they don’t leave until Monday. I invited the two of them to the fund-raiser,” he says, referring to the open house and charity auction for the Stark Children’s Foundation. Jackson decided to serve out his community service there, and his time starts tomorrow. “There’s a petting zoo and Ronnie is crazy for animals. What?” he adds, obviously confused by my growing smile. Page 68

  I shrug. “It’s not every man who’d invite his friends to his community service. ”

  Jackson chuckles. “I’m not every man. ”

  “No,” I agree. “You definitely aren’t. ”

  “Plus, I thought it would be a good time for you to meet them. ”

  “Yeah?” I pull him in for a kiss, which he enthusiastically returns before taking the pink toddler outfit to the counter and asking the clerk to hold it while we continue shopping.

  “And what about you?” Jackson asks Cass as he heads toward the men’s racks.

  “Oh, now that Zee and I broke up, I’m back to my regular costume. I wear it every year,” she explains.

  “You should mix it up,” I say.

  “What costume?” Jackson is looking between the two of us, clearly intrigued.

  “Straight girl,” we say in unison, and he laughs.

  “I wear a skirt and a blouse and I ogle the men. It’s hilarious. ”

  “Fair enough. But if you don’t need a costume, why’d you come shopping with us?”

  “What? And miss the chance to help that one pick out something seriously hot?” She points to me, then holds up her hands in a gesture of self-defense as Jackson raises his brows. “For your enjoyment only, of course. I’ll be ogling the straight boys, remember?” She flutters her eyelashes, clearly working hard to look innocent.

  She turns to me. “Speaking of, why don’t you convince him to go as Superman? Man of Steel, right? And I have a feeling he’d look seriously fine in tights. ”

  Jackson laughs. “Ogling men. Me in tights. Are you certain you’re gay?”

  She snorts. “Just because I don’t want to sample the merchandise doesn’t mean I don’t recognize quality when I see it. ” She turns to face me. “You appreciate a woman’s tits, right?”

  “I am so not having this conversation. ” I look to Jackson for help, but he only shrugs.

  “Don’t look at me. I definitely appreciate a woman’s tits. ”

  “Careful or I will make you wear tights. ” I slide into his arms and rise up on my toes to kiss him. “And you know I can be very persuasive. ”

  “Your tits,” he says quickly. “Only yours. ”

  My effort to find a witty comeback is thwarted by Cass’s enthusiastic cries of “Oh! Oh!”

  She’s moved a few rows over, and now she thrusts a cutoff leather jacket into the air. “Biker chick! And Jackson can go as a biker. It’s perfect. ”

  It actually does sound fun. Not to mention comfortable, which is always my big complaint about Halloween costumes.

  “Not bad. ” Jackson palms my ass and squeezes. “What do you say, baby? Want to be my old lady?”

  “Mister, I think that sounds just about perfect. ”

  Once we have a plan it doesn’t take too long to put together the basics of our costumes. We’re at the register waiting to pay and debating pizza or burgers for lunch when my phone rings.

  I have every intention of ignoring it, but when I glance at the caller ID, I see that it’s Reggie Gale, my old boss from my very first real estate job, five years ago in Atlanta. “How are you?” I ask after the preliminaries. “I’m so glad to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to call. ”

  “Been too long,” he says. “I thought if you were free we could have dinner. ”

  “You’re in town?” Reggie, I mouth, in response to Jackson’s questioning glance.

  “Santa Barbara. But I’m heading down to LA in a bit. Should be there in plenty of time for a drink or a bite if you have the evening free. ”

  “I’d love it. I’m with Jackson, though. Do you mind if he tags along?”

  “Steele? I haven’t seen him since Atlanta. It’ll be like old home week. The two of you. Trent. ”

  I frown. “Trent? Trent Leiter? Is he coming to dinner?”

  Reggie laughs. “No, I just meant I’m seeing old friends. You two in LA. Him up here. I’ve known Leiter since that San Diego project I worked on with Stark right before I hired you. ”

  I can’t think of any business that Trent has in Santa Barbara, and I make a mental note to ask Rachel on Monday if he’s taken her away for a romantic weekend. That would be a treat for Rachel, who usually works Damien’s desk on weekends. But she’s been covering for me so much lately that Damien gave her the weekend off and staffed his desk with one of the floating secretaries.

  We make plans to meet at six-thirty at the wonderful Restaurant at the Getty Center, one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. Page 69

  “Which means you want to skip lunch,” Cass says after I explain the change in plans to both of them.

  “Pizza,” I say. “One slice. And then you and I should go change,” I add to Jackson. It’s already almost two, and there is no way I’m going to such an elegant restaurant in jeans and a Dr. Who T-shirt.

  By four, we are both cleaned up and changed. Me into a wrap-style dress that clings in all the right places, and Jackson into one of the suits that he’s left at my apartment.

  “We still have time,” he says as I finish up my routine by brushing mascara on my lashes. He slides a hand around my waist. “I know just how to fill it. ”

  “Do you?” I turn in his arms, feeling his heat seeping into me.

  “Two words,” he says, then bends low to murmur, “Getty Center,” before claiming my mouth with his own. I melt into the kiss, my body tingling from my toes all the way up to my lips. And honestly, it’s not just his touch that has set me on fire. It’s the fact that he knows me so well.

  “Why, Mr. Steele, you do know the way to a woman’s heart. ”

  “Hopefully into her bed as well. ”

  “I’d say your chances are very, very good. ”

  We spend the time before meeting Gale exploring the Getty Center property. The center is off Sepulveda Boulevard and high enough in the hills to boast stunning views. More than that, though, the entire property is a testament to the thing that both Jackson and I love—fine architecture. And as we stroll through the grounds, we discuss not only the fine work that the architect, Richard Meier, accomplished with the structures, but how it works in harmony with the surrounding land and other natural elements.

  “Even the stone that he chose,” Jackson says, pointing out the fossilized feathers and leaves that decorate the travertine stones that make up so much of the center. “These are the kinds of elements we need to look out for on the Cortez project,” he adds. “Shells, driftwood, fossils. The rocks that have been beaten and carved by the sea. The more we can work those elements into the design—incorporate them as part of the building materials—the better. ”

  We continue like that, chattering on about the Getty, the resort, and the beauty of the space in general until it’s time to make our way to the restaurant.

  Reggie is already there, and he shakes Jackson’s hand enthusiastically and then pulls me into a crushing hug.

  “I like the beard,” I say. He’s always been a big man with a Paul Bunyan build, but now he looks more like Santa Claus with the full, graying beard and mustache.

  “Thought I’d try something new. Always good to keep them on their toes. ”

  “Who?” I ask.

  “Everyone,” he says, and then winks.

  We get settled at the table and ord
er drinks, then fall into a convivial conversation full of reminiscing, catching up, and lots of laughter.

  “So what were you doing in Santa Barbara?” I ask as I finish the last bite of my seared scallops.

  “Visiting family, primarily. My nephew is the concierge at the Gateway hotel. He and his wife wanted my advice on an investment property, and I wanted to get away from Houston. Seemed like a win-win situation. ”

  “So the investment is a good one?”

  “Some land outside the city. Lots of growth potential. So long as they can afford to keep those assets tied up, I think it’s a good deal for them. And speaking of good deals, you certainly had the right idea,” he says, his attention focused on me.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’ve been paying attention to your Cortez project. A resort that is spread over the entirety of one of the channel islands. Honestly, Syl, it was inspired. ”

  “Thank you. ”

  “Even if the Lost Tides Resort gets up and running before Cortez, it still won’t have that aspect going for it. ”

  I glance at Jackson, who doesn’t appear to understand, either. “What’s Lost Tides?” I ask.

  Reggie leans back in his seat and sighs. “Well, shit. I assumed you’d heard. A developer in the Santa Barbara area is trying to bring a resort to one of the islands. Hasn’t managed to acquire all the square footage, but as far as I’ve heard, they’re moving forward with development. ”

  “Who’s the developer?” I ask even as Jackson asks about the architect.

  “Not sure. Apparently, they’re being as anonymous as possible until they’re ready for the big announcement. I guess the plan is that the more drama they can drum up, the more press they’ll get. And the more press, the more interest from the tourism industry. ” Page 70

  I feel a little sick to my stomach. “So how do you know?”

  “My nephew’s boss,” Reggie says. “He keeps his ear to the ground. ”

  I glance at Jackson and grimace. “Well, a little competition never hurts anything. ”

  He puts his hand over mine. “Don’t worry,” he says gently. “Our resort is fine. ”

  I sigh, then nod, relieved that he can read me so well.

  “He’s right,” Reggie says. “Santa Barbara’s a long way from Los Angeles. ”

  “Besides,” Jackson adds. “Santa Cortez has a lot more going for it. ”

  “Yeah? Like what?” I’m playing along, expecting him to cite himself.

  Instead, he says, “You. ”

  “Oh. ” My heart flutters as he squeezes my hand, and from the look in his eyes, I see that it is not a platitude. “Thank you. ”

  Across the table, Reggie is watching us. “I wondered if the two of you had gotten back together. I’m happy to see that you have. ”

  “Me, too. ” I whisper the words, my throat too full of emotion to speak clearly.

  “Ironic that you’re both working for Stark,” he continues, and I feel Jackson stiffen beside me. Hell, I feel myself do the same, suddenly fearful that Reggie has somehow learned about Jackson’s relationship with Damien.

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