On my knees, p.19
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       On My Knees, p.19

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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“Really? When?”

  “When we met in the Bahamas and you turned down my first offer for a resort project. I told her I couldn’t read you. That I couldn’t decide if I liked you or hated you. She said I liked you. ”

  “Did she? Why’s that?”

  Damien grins. “Because you’re one of the few people who’s managed to say no to me. ”

  Jackson laughs, and I bite back a laugh of my own.

  “Don’t make a habit of it,” Damien continues.

  But Jackson just cocks his head toward the court. “Come on, little brother. Let’s go play some tennis. ”

  twenty-one

  This week, I’m back on Damien’s desk for Monday since Rachel is out for the day. Damien’s out of the office until almost five, but that doesn’t mean I get to coast. His desk is nonstop busy. Mostly because the man is seriously freaking busy all of the time, but part of it is because Rachel is still pushing aside the projects and tasks she’s not completely comfortable with.

  That wouldn’t be a problem if I were away on vacation. But she’s supposed to be training as my replacement. Which means I have to add talking with Rachel about her job parameters to my ever-growing to-do list.

  I don’t, however, consider my pile of work to be a bad thing. It keeps my mind off all the social media speculation about me and Jackson, Jackson and Megan, Jackson and the movie, Jackson and his assault on Reed. Plus, my mind keeps drifting to Ethan and dinner with my parents.

  All things considered, I’m happy for the distraction that comes with Damien’s very busy desk.

  I’m on the phone with the president of Stark Manufacturing in Hong Kong when Damien walks in. I mute the call as I hand Damien a stack of mail. “I’ve got Mr. Cheng on the line. Shall I transfer him to your office?” Since it’s the middle of the night in Hong Kong and likely urgent, I expect Damien to say yes, and I already have my hand on the proper button on the phone.

  Damien, however, surprises me.

  “Tell him I’ll call him back in half an hour, then come in. I’ve got a couple of things to discuss with you. ” He doesn’t sound angry, but he also doesn’t sound pleased. I can’t imagine that I did something wrong, because surely I would have heard about it by now. Has Rachel messed up something I need to fix? Has there been more bad press about the resort?

  I’m a bit on autopilot when I finish the call with Mr. Cheng, then pick up a notepad and head into Damien’s office. He’s behind his desk reviewing correspondence, and he points at one of the guest chairs, indicating that I should sit. I do, then cross and recross my legs as I wait for the gauntlet to fall. Page 75

  Finally Damien puts down the document, then looks at me. He says nothing for so long that I have to fight the urge to fidget. After what feels like way too long, he gets up, then moves around the desk so that he is now in front of me. He leans back against the desktop, and though his posture is ostensibly casual, I know him well enough to see that the opposite is true. His motions are planned, his air of relaxation intentional.

  What I don’t understand is why.

  Finally, he reaches behind him and pulls a folder from the corner of his desk. “There’s something I think you should see. ”

  I take the folder and see that it is from Pratt & Associates, the private investigations firm we routinely use for employee background checks. I glance up at Damien, but I don’t yet look inside.

  “I like Jackson,” he says, as if we’re just having simple cocktail conversation. “And I no longer believe that he’s behind the problems we’ve been having at the resort. ”

  “But?”

  His eyes dip to the folder in my hands.

  It’s clear I can’t avoid whatever is inside. I take a breath, flip open the folder, and then jerk back as if I’ve been bit by a snake.

  It’s a petition to establish paternity and parental rights filed by Jackson Steele regarding Veronica Amelia Fletcher.

  Veronica. Ronnie.

  The boat. Of course. Jackson’s boat is called the Veronica.

  She’s his daughter.

  Oh, dear god, Jackson has a child.

  And never once has he so much as hinted at this new, harsh reality that is now staring me in the face. Even after the night on the boat. Even when he told me all about Megan, he still said nothing.

  Oh, god.

  My skin feels hot, my throat tight.

  I swallow and flip through the document. Attached to the end is exhibit A: a positive paternity test based on DNA analysis. And although the petition was filed recently, the paternity test is several years old.

  Nausea wells inside me, and I sincerely doubt that I will get out of this room without throwing up. It takes every ounce of strength I have to remain calm, my expression even.

  “I wasn’t sure if I should tell you. ” Damien’s voice is gentle. “For all I knew, Jackson might have told you himself. Or it might be the kind of thing you just don’t want to know at all. But considering the press attention both of you have been getting lately, I thought I should show you. ”

  I look down at the document again so that Damien can’t see my face. I’m angry and hurt and confused.

  Mostly, I feel betrayed. And numb.

  I pass the file back to Damien. I really don’t want to touch it. “Why do you have this?”

  “We do a background check on everyone who works for the company. You know that. ”

  “We don’t pull pleadings from other states,” I say.

  “Actually, I believe the policy is clear that employees or contractors who also happen to be my half-brother are subject to a deeper investigation. ”

  I lean back, surprised.

  Damien shrugs. “I wasn’t searching for dirt. I just wanted to know more about my brother. ”

  I want to hug myself, because I am cold—so very cold—but I don’t want my veneer to fall. I don’t want Damien to see what a wreck I am, or how much those few pieces of paper have sideswiped me.

  I nod, then force a smile. “Well, I appreciate you telling me. I really do. It means a lot that you thought to do that. That you were concerned about me. But the truth is that I already knew. Jackson told me. ”

  “He did?”

  “Of course,” I say, as if there could be no other answer.

  How very much of a lie that is.

  I push myself up out of the chair, hoping I don’t look as freaked out as I feel. “I’m leaving early today, remember? I should probably go make sure whoever human resources sent up is all set. ”

  He nods, looking at me in that way he has, as if he can see right into my head and reveal the lie.

  I really hope that’s not true.

  He watches me for so long that I’m afraid he’s going to start cross-examining me. But then he smiles, all charm and goodwill. “All right,” he finally says. “So I’ll see both of you in Santa Monica in a few hours?”

  Drinks. After the lesson with Nikki and Wyatt.

  Shit.

  “We’ll be there,” I say brightly.

  He moves back behind his desk, nods in dismissal, then dives back into his correspondence.

  I exhale slowly and head toward the door leading out of his office and to my area. I expect to find one of the floating secretaries behind my desk.

  Instead, I see Jackson.

  “Hey,” he says. “You almost ready?” Page 76

  I hesitate just past the open doorway. I’m not ready for this. I am so very, very not ready for this.

  At first I just stand there, numb and uncertain. But then the door shuts behind me, and when I hear it click shut, it’s as if I’ve been pushed back into action. I take a step toward my desk. “We’re rescheduling the photography thing,” I lie. I keep my eyes down, as if the notes on my pad are the most important scribbles in the history of the world. “There’s something going on in the Hong Kong office. I’m going to work late with Damien. ”

  “That
’s too bad. ”

  As I slide behind my desk, I catch a glimpse of him and manage a disappointed smile. “Yeah, well. Rain check. But you should head out. ”

  “That’s okay. I’ll stay. I have plenty to do on twenty-six. We can grab some dinner when you’re done. ”

  “I’ll probably eat at my desk. ”

  I’m talking to him, but I’m still not looking him in the eye. I can’t, because I don’t want to cry or scream, and I’m afraid if I look, I will do exactly that. Right now, I just want him to go. And that simple fact makes me want to cry the hardest.

  “Syl?” His voice is both gentle and wary, and I realize that I can keep very little from this man. “What’s wrong?”

  I know I should tell him, but I can’t. He’s held on to his secret; I can hold mine for a little bit longer.

  “Nothing. Hong Kong. I’m distracted. ”

  It’s clear he doesn’t believe me—smart man—but he doesn’t call me on it. “All right,” he says carefully. “I’ll be working on twenty-six. We can drive home later together. ”

  “I’ll use one of the company cars. ”

  “Not necessary. I have plenty to do. ” He looks right at me, and I know that he doesn’t believe a word I’m saying. “I’ll drive you home. It’ll be nice to have time to talk. ”

  He goes to the elevator without waiting for me to reply. He pushes the call button. And he doesn’t once look back.

  Shit.

  I don’t even realize I’ve made a decision until I reach the elevator, too. It’s just arrived, and as he steps on, I do as well. And as soon as the doors close, I turn on him, letting all of the temper I’ve been holding in fly. “Goddamn you, Jackson Steele. ” I feel hot and cold at the same time, and so full of fury I could burst. “You put on this big act. Tell me you don’t want to keep secrets. And yet when the opportunity is staring you right in the face, you don’t say a single goddamn word. ”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about Ronnie!” I shout, shoving him in the chest and making him stumble back a step. “I’m talking about the fact that you have a daughter. ”

  He goes completely gray as every ounce of blood drains from his face. He reaches behind him as if he needs the solidity of the elevator wall to steady him.

  I stand frozen, waiting for him to deny it. To tell me I have it wrong—so very wrong.

  He doesn’t.

  Instead, he asks, “How do you know?”

  I lift my chin. “The paternity test. It’s public record, Jackson. ”

  “Public record? Only if someone’s looking. Who’d be—that son of a bitch. ” He meets my eyes, his flashing with anger. And with hurt. “Damien. ”

  I say nothing, but it doesn’t matter. I’m sure the truth shows on my face.

  “That fucking prick. ”

  I wince, realizing that whatever detente Damien and Jackson have reached, I’ve clearly just destroyed it.

  He takes a single, wary step toward me. “Syl, we need to talk. ” His voice is softer now, as if he has put the anger away in a box. For a tiny moment, I’m proud of him, because I have a feeling all he really wants to do is hit something.

  I’m not, however, proud enough to go with him. Not now. Not when I need to be alone.

  “No,” I say. “Maybe we do need to talk, but I can’t right now. I need to think. ” I feel myself sagging with sudden, horrible exhaustion.

  “Syl—” He is reaching out for me, and those damn tears are welling in my eyes again.

  “No,” I repeat. “I’m sorry, but I am going to Santa Monica tonight. ” I meet his eyes. “And, Jackson, I need you to not go with me. ”

  “Here’s to excellent students and negative spaces,” Wyatt says, lifting a beer in a toast.

  We’re in Hard Tails, a relatively new bar on the Third Street Promenade just a few blocks down from my condo. Damien and Nikki are on one side of the booth, and Wyatt and I are on the other. Page 77

  It’s odd not to be sitting by Jackson, but I try not to think about him. I’ve been trying not to think about him all evening.

  So far, I’m not managing that task too well.

  “So a good report card on these girls?” Damien asks.

  “Oh, yes. A-pluses all around. ”

  “I’m so proud,” Nikki teases, then passes her camera to Damien so he can check out the photos she’s taken.

  “These are great,” he says. “I especially like the one with the pier. ”

  “That one was Syl’s idea. But I think we both nailed it. ”

  Wyatt points a finger at both of us. “What did I tell you? Negative space. ”

  We don’t meet with Wyatt as regularly as I would like to, but he always has a theme for his lessons. Today’s was composition. Using negative space—or the empty part around the object—to tell part of the story.

  My passion is taking pictures of architecture, and after taking a number of shots of buildings near the beach, I’d finally looked out toward the ocean, then realized what so many photographers have discovered—that the famous Santa Monica Pier is a great subject for a photo.

  I’d placed the pier down and to the left in the image, leaving a great deal of negative space filling the frame—the darkened ocean, the dimming sky. I’d shown it to Nikki, and even though she prefers to photograph faces, she’d taken a similar shot.

  Now my mind is stuck on the idea of negative space. On seeing what’s not revealed and making meaning out of it.

  Jackson and I were both keeping secrets—our personal negative space. And I suppose that Wyatt is right about the negative space telling the story, because god knows there was a lot of story hidden in both our secrets. My father and Ethan. Megan. Ronnie.

  Does that mean that negative space in relationships is about trust and secrets? And is there ever a time when there is no negative space to be found?

  In a photograph, that would be crowded and horrible.

  But in life?

  In life, don’t we want the secrets revealed and the negative space filled?

  I don’t know, and when the waitress arrives with another round of beer and a huge basket of cheese fries, I’m happy to abandon my philosophical moment.

  The conversation turns to nothing in particular. The shows Nikki and Damien saw in Manhattan. Wyatt’s upcoming trip to Chicago. Soon enough, we have to call it a night. Damien has an early morning overseas call, and I’m ready to be alone.

  “I need to hit the ladies’ room,” Nikki says. She looks at me. “Come with?”

  It’s a totally transparent invitation, but I accept it nonetheless.

  “I heard about the paternity action,” she says as soon as we are alone in the small bathroom. “You okay? You seem a little shell-shocked. ”

  “I guess Damien didn’t believe me when I said I already knew. ” I grimace. “And I thought I was hiding it so well. ”

  A small smile touches her lips. “I just got a peek. ” She reaches out to touch my arm. “Seriously, if you want to talk about it. ”

  I do, I realize. I really do.

  “It’s just—I mean, the man has a daughter. He didn’t think maybe that would be important to mention?”

  “Does it bother you? That he has a kid?”

  “No,” I insist. “It’s the fact that he didn’t tell me when there were so many times that it would have fit right there into the conversation. ”

  “Believe me, I understand. I’m married to a man whose natural state is to keep secrets. ”

  “And you’re okay with that?”

  Nikki shrugs. “I won’t deny it drives me crazy. But I’m not in his head, you know. And especially before we were married, I think I wanted to know things to prove to myself that he and I were okay. But that doesn’t mean I had a right to those secrets. Not unless they affected me, too. ”

  “Oh, I think having a kid affects me. ”

&n
bsp; She lifts a shoulder. “Maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe he’s scared to tell you. ”

  I just shake my head, not sure what to say to any of that.

  “Come on, Syl. You guys are amazing together, but that doesn’t change the fact that you pushed him out of your life five years ago. Maybe he’s afraid you’re going to do it again. ”

  “No. ” The word is vehement and full of certainty. I look her straight in the eye. “No way. There’s nothing that would push me away. ” Even this, I realize. It’s a bump. A fight. But in the end we’ll work our way past it. Won’t we?

  “And he knows that?” she asks.

  Page 78

  “Of course. ”

  “Fair enough. Maybe he doesn’t want to tell you because there’s nothing to tell. Damien told me that his attorney hasn’t gotten a court date. Maybe he’s not going to pursue it. Or maybe he was planning to tell you tomorrow or next week and you jumped the gun. I don’t know, Syl. But neither do you. ”

  “You think I shouldn’t be mad. ”

  “I didn’t say that. Be mad all you want. Just don’t be unfair. ”

  I think about that. Have I been unfair?

  She leans back against the porcelain sink. “The thing is, I’ve seen you two together, and it’s intimate, you know? You fit. And I’m guessing that it’s even more intimate than you’ve let on. But that’s not—I mean—oh, shit. ”

  “What?”

  “It’s just that intimacy’s not a key, you know? You don’t just get close to someone and expect that to open a door and everything comes tumbling out like an overstuffed closet. ”

  I have to sigh. Because she’s right. And I know that. It’s just that this secret is so big that it seemed like a game changer. But maybe it’s not. Maybe the game stays the same.

  twenty-two

  Jackson’s not answering his phone, which probably means he doesn’t want to talk to me.

  Honestly, I don’t care. We need to talk, and if he wants to send me away or lock me topside on the boat while he goes below deck, he can do that.

  But until he takes those extreme measures, I’m doing whatever it takes to get to him. To talk to him.

  To tell him how I feel.

  And, yes, to tell him that I was wrong.

  Which is why I am now pulling into the marina and parking my car. And when I do, I realize that the reason I’m able to park so close to Jackson’s boat is because his car isn’t in its assigned slot.

  Fuck.

  I try to think where else he could be, but the fact is that I just don’t know. LA is a big city, and he could be anywhere.

  I pull out my cell phone and dial the office, checking in with both the night receptionist and the security staff, but I am assured across the board that Jackson isn’t at Stark Tower.

  He wouldn’t have gone to a club—not even to blow off steam.

  And while his usual modus operandi is to fuck his way through moments like this, even after a fight, I do not believe that he would find another woman.

  Then again, that’s not really his MO, is it? I’m the one who begged him to use me when he felt out of control. When he had to lash out.

  It’s not a fast, hard fuck that he’ll be gunning for.

  It’s a fight.

  Shit.

  I close my eyes and try to figure out what to do. I’m certain that I’m right, but that knowledge doesn’t do me a whole lot of good. This is LA, after all, where hard bodies rule, and that means there are more gyms in this city than Damien has dollars.

 
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