On my knees, p.18
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       On My Knees, p.18

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
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But that’s not what he means.

  “I mean, the man saved all our asses, didn’t he? Hell, I should probably take a job with him and complete the circle. ”

  “What are you talking about?” Jackson asks.

  “The Brighton Consortium, of course. ”

  The Brighton Consortium consisted of a group of real estate investors and professionals who had been in the process of developing four hundred acres of land for commercial purposes. Jackson had been their intended architect, and had it gone through, he would have been responsible for a massive complex, including every building in the development. At the time, it would have been his biggest job yet, and he undoubtedly had expected it to be the project that truly launched his career.

  Jackson lets go of my hand. Now he’s gripping the edge of the table. Hard.

  “Stark screwed me out of Brighton,” he says. “He swept in, acquired key parcels of land outside of the consortium’s agreement, and killed the whole goddamn project. ”

  “Damn straight he did. Like I said, he saved our asses. ” Reggie peers at Jackson’s face, then exhales. “Oh, son, didn’t you know? That project was dirty. ”

  “What are you talking about?” His words are measured and wary.

  “I’m talking about fraud. The criminal kind that gets the feds involved waving claims like RICO and securities fraud. ”

  Jackson says nothing, but I am relieved to see that his grip on the table has loosened just slightly. “Go on. ”

  “I didn’t realize when I got involved, and I got out as soon as I saw what was happening. Brighton’s the reason I decided to retire. Leave Atlanta. ” He lifts a shoulder. “Of course, retirement didn’t stick. ”

  Jackson says nothing.

  “I’ve known Damien for a while, and when I realized what I’d gotten in the middle of, I confided in him. Apparently someone else in the thick of it did, too. He had no reason to stick his nose in, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to turn a huge profit, but he found a way to acquire those key parcels. As soon as he did, that was the end of it. Brighton went up like a puff of smoke, and so did the risk that we’d all end up with federal convictions hanging around our necks. All of us,” he adds, looking at me.

  “Sylvia? She was just your assistant. ”

  “And she may have walked. At the very least, they would have latched onto her as a witness, made her testify. And you—”

  “I would have been hard pressed to avoid a conviction,” Jackson says slowly. “I was all set to get an extremely lucrative commission. It would have been hard to prove I wasn’t completely hooked in. ” He closes his eyes and runs his fingers through his hair. “Shit. ”

  “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I assumed you knew. ”

  “I didn’t,” Jackson says. “But I appreciate you telling me. ” He turns to me. “I flat out accused him of knocking my career offtrack. And he didn’t say a thing. ”

  “Damien’s not a man to justify himself to anyone. ” I meet Jackson’s eyes. “Reminds me a little bit of you. ”

  The fund-raiser for the Stark Children’s Foundation is scheduled to start at eleven, with a lunch buffet, activities for the kids, and then a speech by Damien and a live auction, complete with a cattle auctioneer that Damien found in Texas. Page 71

  Cass and I arrive at about eleven thirty, and I immediately start looking for Jackson, who’s been here since eight.

  The fund-raiser is being held at the Greystone Mansion, a popular event location in Beverly Hills. The 1920s mansion itself is huge—over forty thousand square feet—and is tucked away in rolling hills and lush landscaping.

  The event is being held in conjunction with Stark Sport Camp, and the entire property is dedicated to the kids who are staying the full weekend for a variety of games and other activities. For camp, the foundation has rented the entire property. But the fund-raiser—which is only a few hours out of the weekend—is being held primarily on the main floor of the mansion, with a few activity stations set up outside on the portable sport courts.

  I see a basketball court set up off to the left as Cass and I head into the mansion. “There it is. Jackson’s community service. ”

  “That’s what he’s doing?” Cass asks. “Basketball?”

  “Honestly, I don’t know. Let’s find him and ask. ”

  We enter the main area with the polished checkered floor and stunning grand staircase that has graced so many movies. Along the sides of the room, buffet tables are set up. Adults and children are going through the line, then taking their food to the small cafe tables that are provided both inside and out.

  “I don’t see him,” I say, though I do see several familiar faces. Evelyn Dodge, for one, a Hollywood agent and friend of Damien’s. She’s a dynamo with publicity and I recall that Damien was going to ask her advice about releasing news of his relationship with Jackson to the public. As far as I know, though, they haven’t discussed it yet.

  I also see Charles Maynard, Damien’s attorney who also represented Jackson on the Reed assault case and negotiated community service in lieu of a conviction. Ollie McKee is here, too. He’s one of Maynard’s associates, and he’s been helping Cass with her plan to franchise her tattoo parlor.

  I point him out. “Oh, good,” she says. “A familiar face. ”

  I laugh. “What am I?”

  “About to abandon me to go find Jackson. And you know it. ”

  “True,” I admit. “Catch up with you later?”

  “Absolutely. ”

  She heads off to Ollie, and I start to make the circle. I check the buffet tables first, because I think it’s very likely that he got stuck serving food. But he’s not there. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be anywhere.

  I follow the crowd and end up in a wonderfully colorful garden out back. But there is still no Jackson. I’m starting to think that with the size of this place, I’ll never find him.

  Finally, I see someone I recognize, and I catch up with Stacey, the assistant director of the S. C. F. “Do you know where Jackson is?” I ask after the standard greetings.

  “He’s down by the petting zoo. His friend with the little girl can’t stay, so I gave him an hour off to hang out with them. ”

  “Can’t stay?” My heart sinks for Jackson. I know he was looking forward to spending some time with Ronnie. And I was looking forward to meeting both the child and the mother.

  As Stacey had said, I find him at the petting zoo that’s been set up at the rear of the gardens. He’s kneeling beside a little girl with curly black hair as dark as his own. She’s wearing the little pink cowgirl outfit, and I can’t help but smile.

  I look around, but don’t see Megan, so I move closer, approaching from the side. I don’t want to disturb Jackson’s moment with Ronnie, but at the same time, I want to meet her.

  I’m at an angle where I can see her face now. Her huge blue eyes and little cupid bow of a mouth. She has her hand out, and Jackson puts a few pellets of goat food in her palm.

  “Okay, just hold it out, and he’ll eat. ”

  She does, but as soon as the very eager goats approach, she slants her palm, and all the food falls off.

  Jackson laughs. “No, sweetie. Keep it flat. ”

  “They’ll bite me. ”

  “What? Like this?” he asks, then moves in close making num num noises as he pretends to eat her all up.

  She squeals and squirms. “No, Uncle Jackson! That tickles!”

  “That’s the idea, squirt. Okay, ready to try again?” His eyes flick up and he sees me. For a moment, I feel like I’m intruding, then his smile widens to include and welcome me.

  I come over slowly, because Ronnie has gotten with the program and I don’t want to accidentally scare off one of the goats as she thrusts her little hand out, then giggles as goat lips brush her palm.

  When I finally arrive, Jackson stands and puts his arm around me. “Do you know who this is?” he asks Ronnie.
Page 72

  “Sylvie!”

  I squat down so I’m eye level with her. “Very good. How did you know that?”

  “’Cause Uncle Jackson said you’re pretty. ”

  I tilt my head up to see him. “Oh, he did, did he?”

  “Yup. Who am I?”

  “You are Ronnie. ”

  “Yes!” She holds out a hand covered with goat spit, clearly wanting a high five.

  I happily oblige.

  “More food?” Having finished the greetings, she’s ready to get back to the goats. I stand and slide into Jackson’s embrace. “She’s darling. ”

  “She really is. ”

  From a few yards away, I hear a woman calling, “Jackson! Finish up, okay? The taxi’s waiting. ”

  “That’s Megan?”

  “Yes. Stay with Ronnie a minute?”

  “Sure. ” I take the bag of goat food and join the little girl.

  And though I’m honestly not trying to eavesdrop, I can’t help but overhear bits of their conversation, which consists of Megan insisting they have to go, and Jackson asking her to reconsider, promising to bring Ronnie to the hotel in plenty of time for them to catch their evening flight.

  Megan sticks to her guns, though, and after a moment, Jackson calls me over, indicating that Ronnie can stay at the pen. I join them, and as he introduces us, I try to form an opinion of this woman. I know she’s a friend of Jackson’s, I know he cares about her, and I know she’s dealing with a lot of problems. But I’m also seeing a woman who seems overly harsh, problems or not. After all, the poor kid has only been to the petting zoo and the grounds are practically a fairground of children’s activities today. So my desire to like her is tempered by my feeling that she’s being unreasonable.

  And, yeah, that whole jealousy thing still lingers.

  After the introductions, Jackson goes back to gather Ronnie, and I hang behind. “If you’re worried about him watching her while he does the community service thing, you don’t need to be. I’m happy to help. ”

  “No. That’s not it. She just needs to come with me. ”

  “But if he’s willing to watch her and bring her—”

  “That’s not his job. ” She snaps out the words, and I decide that I should probably keep my nose out of this.

  I go with Jackson to put them in the taxi. I give Ronnie a big hug and get a sloppy kiss on my cheek in return. Jackson does the same, and is similarly rewarded. He hugs Megan, and we stand back as the taxi pulls out, watching the little girl waving at us from the window.

  “God, I adore that kid. ”

  “I’m not surprised. She’s pretty adorable. ”

  “I’m sorry you didn’t meet Megan at her best. She’s under a lot of stress. ”

  “I get it,” I say. “Single parenting must be hard. What about Ronnie’s biological dad?”

  Jackson hesitates, then shakes his head. “He wasn’t in the picture. ”

  “That’s a shame. ”

  Jackson leads the way down a stone path, and I walk beside him, holding his hand.

  “Is it?”

  I look at him, confused. “What?”

  “It’s just that everyone says it’s hard to grow up without a father. But look at you and me. We probably would have been better off. ”

  I consider what he says, and I can’t deny there’s merit. “I guess it’s the kind of question that can only be answered in the specific. How can we say which would be better for Ronnie without knowing all the details? As for you and me—” I cut myself off with a shake of my head. “These are the kinds of big philosophical questions you shouldn’t discuss without wine. Because if I grew up without a dad, does that mean Ethan would have died?”

  He looks at me, then kisses my forehead. “I guess all we can do is live the life we have. ”

  “Together?”

  “Absolutely. ”

  “Good answer,” I say.

  We pause to watch some kids playing catch with parents and volunteers. I lean against him, and he wraps his arms around me. It feels nice. It feels comfortable. And though I don’t want the moment to end, I can’t help the way my mind wanders, thinking about this place, these people. Ollie. Charles.

  “You tensed up,” Jackson says, and I frown for being so transparent. “What are you thinking?”

  “About what Damien said Friday night,” I admit. “About Reed bringing a civil lawsuit now that the criminal one is wrapped. ”

  “Mmm. ”

  “I saw Charles. Have you talked to him about that?”

  “That and other things,” Jackson says. “He thinks it’s likely Reed will use the threat of a civil suit as leverage. And since I pled guilty to assault, it’s pretty much a lock. ” Page 73

  “You’d end up paying him damages. ”

  “Or I let him do the movie and he drops the case. ”

  “Asshole. ”

  “I agree. Of course, I had Charles relay that I’ll pay the damages. I can’t predict what they’ll be, of course, but my bank account is doing fine. And I’m not one to bend over to blackmail. ”

  I shudder. “It’s all such a mess. ”

  “There’s some good news, at least. Charles told me that Ollie is working hard with Cass. He thinks it’s a good business for franchising and she’s asking all the right questions. Doing her homework. Playing it safe even while making the leap. ”

  “That is good news. ”

  He tells me more about who he’s chatted with as we continue down the stone path. We’ve gone quite far before I realize that Jackson is supposed to be working this function. When I call him out for slacking off, he just laughs.

  “I still have a few minutes of my free hour. Plus, I’m on my way to my next job. ”

  “Which is?”

  He gives me a flat-eyed stare. “Apparently, I get to be my brother. ”

  I’m baffled until we arrive at the portable sport court that has been set up as a small tennis court. Damien is there, hitting a ball back and forth over the net with a boy who looks to be about eight.

  He sees us and waves, then calls over one of the volunteers to take over for him. He says a few words to the kid, then joins us.

  “Thanks for doing this,” Damien says. “I think you’ll enjoy it. The kids get so excited when they hit the ball. ”

  “So do I,” Jackson says dryly. “Trust me when I say that tennis skill doesn’t run in the family. ”

  “You’ll do fine. ” Damien takes a step back toward the court. “Come on. ”

  “One second, okay?”

  Damien eyes him, then nods. “What’s on your mind?”

  Jackson nods toward me. “Sylvia and I had dinner yesterday with Reggie Gale. ” He draws a deep breath. “I owe you an apology. ”

  “Do you?”

  “I blamed you for Atlanta. Turns out I should be thanking you. ”

  “I made a business decision,” Damien says, still in pure business-mode. “Nothing more. ”

  Jackson studies him for a moment. “All right. ” He starts to move toward the court. “Ready?”

  “Wait. ”

  Jackson stops. I stand perfectly still, feeling a lot like an intruder, but I’m afraid if I leave, I’ll disturb whatever is happening between these two men.

  “I want to show you something. ” Damien pulls out his phone, finds something on it, then passes the device to Jackson.

  Jackson reads, then frowns. “The press is lambasting you about cave crickets?”

  “An internal email was leaked this morning,” Damien says, which is something I hadn’t yet heard. “In it, I said that we weren’t going to shut Cortez down because of a species of crickets that the EPA says is protected. ”

  “And somehow the press got your email. ”

  “And they’re taking it out of context. The discussion was with my staff and the goal was to research whether or not the species really is endangered. It i
sn’t. ”

  Jackson passes the phone back to Damien. “Why are you showing me this?” It’s the same question I have—especially since the EPA has already told me that we’re now in the clear and that Cortez is on track.

  “The cave cricket issue has been resolved. But the release of this email doesn’t look good for the resort. And the timing of this new round of sabotage so soon after your return to the project is very telling. ”

  I watch Jackson’s posture go rigid. And my stomach does a few flips of its own.

  “What exactly are you saying, Stark?”

  “I’m saying that someone is fucking with us. With both of us. ”

  For a moment, Jackson doesn’t react at all. His face is as unreadable as Damien’s during a board meeting. Then finally, cautiously, he says, “You don’t think it’s me. ”

  “I did,” Damien admits. “I don’t anymore. But I do think the timing is key. ”

  “So who’s doing it? Jeremiah?”

  “He’s definitely at the top of my list. ”

  Jackson shakes his head. “I don’t believe it. ”

  “Then don’t believe it. But you need to know something. Whether or not Jeremiah Stark is behind the sabotage, he’s not a good guy. He’s not a victim. He’s a manipulative narcissist. The sooner you realize that, the better. ”

  “What is it you think?” Jackson asks. “That I’m wearing rose-colored glasses? I know damn well that Jeremiah’s not an innocent man. ” Page 74

  “I’m glad your eyes are open. ”

  “Wider than they used to be,” Jackson admits. As if to illustrate the point, he looks around at this camp and the fund-raising activities to benefit abused children. “I read the press after your trial. ”

  “Did you?” Damien’s voice is cool. Though Damien is intensely private, he’d gone public recently with some of the horrific shit that had tainted his childhood. It was a seriously brave thing to do; I’m not certain I would have had the courage.

  “Did he know?” Jackson asks. “What Richter did to you? Did our father know?”

  For a moment, I don’t think that Damien will answer, and to be honest, I very much want to leave. But I don’t think that either man realizes I am there anymore.

  Time seems to slow, and Damien says nothing. Then he looks Jackson in the eye. “He knew. ”

  Jackson closes his eyes. When he opens them again, his expression is harsh, and I can practically feel his desire to hit someone. “He hurt us both, Damien. He wrapped us in a web of lies and deceit. ”

  “Do you think I don’t know that?”

  Jackson drags his fingers through his hair, looking at me as he does. “That’s not the kind of thing a father should do. You expect a parent to do the best for a child. To take on the burden, no matter how hard it might be. And definitely not use the kid as a pawn. ”

  He turns his attention back to Damien. “We were pawns, Damien. ”

  “And now we’re not,” Damien says.

  “No,” Jackson agrees. “We’re not. ”

  Jackson holds out his hand to me, and I go to him, relieved that he doesn’t mind that I just heard that entire exchange, and also pleased that he wants me at his side.

  “I never thought I’d say this, but I like you, Stark. If it weren’t for all the shit around us, we might have been friends. ”

  Damien’s smile reaches his eyes. “Nikki said the same thing, more or less. ”

 
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