On my knees, p.2
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       On My Knees, p.2

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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“Charles tells me they’re going to plead you down. You’ll do community service over the next six months and walk away with a clean record. He’s talked to Reed’s people and the district attorney’s office and everyone agrees. ”

  “That’s right. ” Sylvia had retained Stark’s lawyer, Charles Maynard, as soon as she’d learned about Jackson’s incarceration, and Jackson had to give the attorney props for doing a hell of a job.

  “Fair enough. Unless you’ve already made arrangements, you can serve it at the Stark Children’s Foundation or at S. E. F. ,” he said, referring to the Stark Education Foundation. Both were charitable organizations founded by Stark. The first to provide play- and sports-based therapy to victims of child abuse. The second to provide educational opportunities to low-income or otherwise unfortunate kids with an aptitude in science.

  “I—thank you. ” Jackson tried not to let his surprise show on his face. Neither Stark’s reaction to the arrest nor the offer to help with community service had been something Jackson would have expected from Stark. Then again, Stark wanted the resort project to run smoothly and efficiently. So helping Jackson out made sense.

  “Not a problem,” Stark said. “I appreciate that you wanted to talk about this as soon as possible, but it really could have waited until morning. I’m sorry to say that around here unfortunate press coverage isn’t as rare as I’d like it to be. But it will blow over. ”

  Jackson glanced toward Sylvia, who was very deliberately not looking at him. But her relief was reflected in both her posture and her facial expression.

  By the window, Stark glanced at his watch. “Now if you don’t mind, Nikki and I’ve had a long day and I’d like to finish up with Syl and cut her loose. ” He crossed toward Jackson with his hand outstretched. “But it was good to see you, and I know that you’ll weather this storm just fine. ”

  Jackson hesitated, then shook his brother’s hand. “I appreciate that,” he said. “But there’s something else I need to talk with you about. It’s personal. ”

  “All right. Sylvia? Could you give us a moment?”

  “It’s okay. She can stay. Nikki, too,” he added, because Stark clearly had no intention of asking his wife to leave.

  “Fair enough. ” Stark eyed Sylvia and nodded, probably assuming Jackson intended to officially tell him that Jackson and Sylvia were dating. “What’s on your mind?”

  “Jeremiah Stark. ”

  “Well, fuck. What trouble is he stirring up now?”

  “Nothing that I know of,” Jackson said. “He’s my father. ”

  Nikki gasped. Sylvia looked down at her shoes.

  Stark didn’t move at all.

  And for the first time Jackson regretted not taking Stark up on his offer to sit, because his knees were suddenly weak. Probably the result of all the oxygen being sucked from the room.

  Stark’s expression didn’t change. His eyes didn’t widen. His jaw didn’t tighten. He didn’t swallow. He stayed absolutely calm and entirely unreadable. And in that moment Jackson knew exactly how Stark had been able to acquire his fortune so fast. The man had nerves of steel.

  “I should have told you before I came on board the project,” he said. “But habits are hard to break, and this is a secret I’ve been told to keep for over thirty years now. ”

  “Then why say anything at all?” Stark’s voice was as tight as a wire.

  Jackson glanced toward Sylvia, then quickly looked away. “Because it’s time. ”

  “I see. ” A moment passed. Then another. And though Jackson tried to discern what his brother was thinking, he didn’t have a clue.

  “Damien?” Nikki’s soft voice seemed to fill the room.

  Stark didn’t turn to her. He kept his eyes on Jackson. And as Jackson watched, the tight, expressionless face turned human again. Stark smiled—not a genuine smile, but the kind of expression he might wear during a boardroom presentation. An expression of complete and total control—and that revealed absolutely no personal reaction whatsoever.

  “I appreciate you telling me,” he said. “Now if you don’t mind, you should go. As I mentioned, it’s been a long day for Nikki and me. ”

  Jackson took a single step forward. “Damien—”

  “No,” Stark said, and this time the word was harsh, that slight hint of emotion revealing to Jackson just how much his bombshell truly had impacted the man. “And it really is time for you to leave. ” Page 6

  three

  I force myself to remain seated as Jackson turns and leaves. I catch his eyes once more, but like Damien, his expression is impenetrable.

  Even so, I’m sure there’s pain behind both men’s masks, and I wish that it was in my power to make this whole situation better for Jackson, whose love I cherish, and for Damien, whose respect I crave.

  In the silence, I hear the elevator doors snick closed, even from all the way across the apartment.

  As if the sound is a cue, Damien turns to me. “Did you know?”

  There is absolutely no inflection to his words, and despite the years I’ve worked for him—despite the power I’ve seen him wield and the flares of temper I have witnessed—this is the first time that I have been truly nervous around my boss.

  “He told me on Saturday. ” What I don’t say is that it is because of me that Jackson came here tonight. Once he’d told me his secret, he knew he had to tell Damien, because otherwise he’d have to burden me with the secret, too. And this isn’t the kind of thing that I would feel comfortable keeping from Damien.

  Damien says nothing, and even though I know that his silence is a time-honored technique to keep people talking, I fall headlong into the trap. “I saw him with your father at Michael Prado’s charity event on Friday,” I say, the words spilling out. “And I got pissed because he’d told me that he didn’t know Jeremiah. We had a huge fight, and—” I cut myself off with a shrug. “At any rate, he told me. ”

  Damien and Nikki both know that Jackson and I are a couple, but that isn’t something I want to focus on at the moment. As far as I’m concerned, right now, this is all about me being as professional as possible. I glance toward Nikki. We’ve become good friends, and I can see the worry on her face. But she says nothing, and I’m grateful. At some point, this whole debacle may lead to many drinks with my friends. Right now, though, I just need to hold it together.

  “You’re not in trouble, Sylvia,” Damien says, and the iron band that has tightened around my chest loosens just a bit. “If a week or two had gone by without me learning the truth, then we would have talked. But as far as your job is concerned, you weren’t obligated to tell me about this until after Jackson had the opportunity to do so. Which he’s definitely now accomplished,” Damien adds, and there’s just enough humor in his voice to make me think that maybe—just maybe—we have weathered the storm.

  “Thanks,” I say. “I appreciate that you understand how awkward the situation was. ” I hold up the notebook, hoping I don’t look too desperate to get off this seriously uncomfortable topic. “Do you want to finish now?”

  He waves a hand. “There’s nothing on the agenda that can’t wait. ”

  “Fine. Great. ” I quickly gather my stuff and swing my leather tote over my arm. “I’m glad your trip was good. ”

  “It really was,” Nikki says, and her voice sounds as strained as mine feels. “Lots of excellent theater. ”

  “Well, tomorrow, then. ” I turn to head toward the elevator, but Damien’s words stop me cold.

  “Fire him,” Damien says, and the ground falls out from under me. “First thing tomorrow, I want you to fire him. ”

  My back is to him, and I stand frozen for a moment, unable to move. Unable to breathe. Me. He wants me to do this? To take away this project that Jackson has come to love?

  Bile rises in my throat, and I fear that I may throw up. But I force it down, then very slowly and very carefully, I turn around.

  Damien’s expr
ession is hard, and there is no denying the contained fury in his eyes.

  “But … but the resort?” I want to scream that he cannot make me do this. That I can’t fire Jackson. Hell, that he shouldn’t fire Jackson.

  Instead, I force myself to stay calm. To appear businesslike. “It won’t look good. There will be questions. The press will be all over it. ”

  “I believe I already made clear that scandal and the press don’t concern me overmuch. We’ll handle it. ”

  I lick my lips. “Don’t you want to talk about it?” Immediately I regret my words. I’ve crossed into personal, and right now I think that is a very bad move.

  “He was raised by Jeremiah Stark. ” Damien practically spits the name out. “Have you forgotten about the sabotage? All the bullshit we’ve dealt with getting even this far on the project?”

  “No, of course not. But surely you don’t think—”

  “I don’t know,” Damien says. “And that’s the point. I’m cutting my losses, Ms. Brooks. Take care of it first thing in the morning. ” Page 7

  The words are a dismissal, but I don’t leave. “So that’s it?” I demand. “The resort is dead?”

  “Maybe not,” Damien says. “As it happens, Glau called me while we were in New York. He didn’t ask outright, but he beat around the bush enough that I can tell he regrets leaving the project. Apparently Tibet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. ”

  “But—”

  “We’ll do everything we can to keep the project alive,” he says firmly. “But Jackson Steele isn’t going to be a part of it. ”

  I nod, because I know better than to argue. I’d known this might happen, dammit. As soon as Jackson told me the truth, I knew that Damien might want to push him as far from Stark International as possible.

  I just hadn’t let myself believe it would really happen.

  “Right,” I mumble. “Okay. Tomorrow, then. ” I hitch the tote more firmly on my shoulder and start again toward the elevator. Nikki is standing in the doorway between the living area and the hall that leads to the bedrooms. I catch her eye as I pass, and she manages a thin smile, looking a bit like someone who has just witnessed a car crash and isn’t entirely sure what to do now.

  As for me, all I want is to get out of there, because I know that any second the tears are going to start flowing. Ironic, because until yesterday when Jackson held me in his arms, I hadn’t cried for over a decade. Now I can barely hold it in.

  I press the button for the elevator, expecting it to open immediately. When Damien is home, the elevator is usually where he is. But of course Jackson rode it down, and I have to wait for it to be recalled from the lobby.

  I shift my weight from foot to foot, willing it to hurry. Needing to just be gone.

  Needing to go find Jackson.

  Finally, the elevator arrives. I squeeze in before the doors are even fully open, then jab my finger hard against the button to close them again. They’re almost shut when Nikki skids to a halt outside and slides her hand through the gap, tripping the safety feature and making the doors spread open again.

  She steps onto the elevator with me, then leans over and pushes the button for the lobby. “Do you want to talk?”

  I shake my head. I’m still in full flee-mode, and while Nikki is a friend, right at the moment, I can’t quite separate her from Damien.

  “Talk to him again in the morning. This is all very … unexpected,” she finally says, clearly searching for the right word. “Give him some time to digest, and he might change his mind. ”

  “Do you really think so?”

  She hesitates, then lifts one shoulder. “Honestly, I don’t know. ”

  “Do you think he should?” Right away I want to take the words back; I sound so damn needy.

  “I think that’s up to him,” she says. “But if it were my decision, then yeah, I think he should keep Jackson on the project. Hell, I think he should try to get to know him. Reach out. If they’re brothers, then maybe they should try to be brothers. ”

  I lean back against the wall and look at her. It makes sense. Why go straight to enemies without first trying to be friends, if not family? “Are you going to tell him that? Or at least suggest he shouldn’t fire Jackson?”

  A soft laugh bubbles out of her. “Um, no. Not hardly. ”

  “Why the hell not?” My words are sharper than I intended, but dammit, I thought I’d found an ally.

  “You know why. This is between Damien and Jackson and Jeremiah. You and I can have our opinions, but it’s not up to us. ”

  “So share your opinion. ”

  For a moment, she just looks sad. “Come on, Syl, you know I can’t. If I asked, Damien would keep him here. We both know he’d do that for me. And I couldn’t live with that hanging between us. ”

  I know she’s right. There is very little that Damien wouldn’t do for Nikki, and it’s a testament to the strength of their relationship that she understands just how much responsibility that puts on her shoulders.

  Even so, her answer frustrates me. “What about me? What if I ask him to keep Jackson on as a favor to me?”

  “You can try, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Friendship means a lot to him, but honesty and professional integrity mean more. Jackson should have told him the truth a long time ago. And he sure as hell should have told him before he came on board the project. ”

  “I know. Hell, Jackson knows. But it was a bitch of a situation to be in. ”

  The elevator has reached the lobby, and the doors slide open. I step out, and Nikki holds her hand against a door to keep it from closing as she stays in the car. “The truth is if their father wasn’t Jeremiah Stark, this might blow over. But this way …” She trails off into a shrug. “Well, it’s going to be stormy. ” Page 8

  I sigh, suddenly mentally and physically exhausted. “I feel like Damien’s punishing me, too,” I admit. “Making me be the one who fires him. ”

  “No,” Nikki says firmly. “I don’t think so. I think it’s his way of making sure that you still want the job and all the shit that comes with being the project manager. He knows you two are together, and that means that he knows you might not want to stay if Jackson is gone. Do you?”

  My stomach twists, because yes, I do. This resort is my baby—my project. I’d suggested it to Damien. I’d put it together. And I’m so damn grateful that he’s given me a real chance to move up in the company by letting me split my time between being his assistant and being the project manager for the Cortez resort.

  So yes, I want this job. I want the resort. I want Jackson.

  God help me, I want it all.

  And I have no idea if I can even come close to getting—or keeping—any of it.

  four

  Where R U?

  I glance down at the text I sent to Jackson as I wait for Joe to check the computer logs that record vehicles entering and leaving the garage.

  It’s been well over three minutes, and still no reply.

  I tap out another note—???—and am rewarded with only cyber-silence.

  “Anything?” I ask Joe.

  “Nothing,” Joe says, frowning at his monitor. “He didn’t use his key card to access the garage today. ”

  “That doesn’t make sense. I know he drove here. ” And I also know how much Jackson loves his sleek, classic black Porsche. I can’t imagine him simply parking it on the street in downtown LA after dark.

  “Maybe he parked at the subway station and walked down the hill?”

  “Why do you think that?”

  “I chatted with him before he went up to see Mr. Stark. Came in right there,” Joe adds, pointing toward the glass doors that open onto the building’s front plaza and South Grand Avenue beyond that.

  I consider that tidbit of information. “Well, did you see him leave?”

  “I’m sorry, Ms. Brooks. I haven’t seen him since he arrived. ”

  I frown, w
ondering if maybe Jackson didn’t leave the building, after all. I’d expected him to want to get far away as quickly as possible—I know I would. But Jackson isn’t me, and I draw in a breath as I debate whether I should go up to his workspace on the twenty-sixth floor. On the one hand, he didn’t wait for me, and he hasn’t returned my texts. All evidence suggests that he wants to be alone, and I get that.

  On the other hand, what he wants may not be the most important factor. I’d been royally pissed off at him not long ago, and I’d wanted to be alone, too. But Jackson had followed me to make sure I was okay.

  And right now, I’m terribly afraid that Jackson is a long, long way from okay.

  I thank Joe for his help, then park myself on one of the chrome and leather benches that provide seating in the lobby. I tap out one more text, then actually cross my fingers.

  It doesn’t help, and after forcing myself to sit and wait for a full five minutes, I make a decision. Maybe it’s selfish, but I want to see him. No, I need to see him. I need to know he’s okay.

  More than that, I need to know that we’re okay. That despite all of this shit, Jackson and Sylvia are going to be just fine.

  It’s dark when I get off on twenty-six, the only illumination on the floor coming from the city lights streaming in through all the windows. The floor is only half built-out, so there are very few offices and cubicles. It’s essentially a giant square with walls of glass, and because of that, the space is reasonably well-lit, like walking beneath the glow of a full moon.

  I turn the last corner, and see the newly erected glass walls that define Jackson’s workspace. He is standing by the window, and I’m struck by the similarity between his stance and Damien’s earlier position as he’d looked out over the city.

  I see Jackson only in silhouette. His shoulders squared, his body rigid. I cannot see the reflection of his face from where I stand, but I can imagine it with perfect clarity. His black hair gleaming in the reflected light. His sculptured jaw tight with anger. And his blue eyes as cold as ice.

  I start to walk toward him and then change my mind. Instead, I pull out my phone one more time.

  If you need me, I’m right outside your office.

  I hesitate, not entirely certain I’m doing the right thing. And then, once more, I press send.

  I hear his phone chirp almost immediately. I watch as he pulls out the phone. As he reads the text. As he slides the phone back into his pocket.

  But he doesn’t come, and as the seconds tick by, that iron band is tightening around my chest again, and I am afraid—so terribly afraid—that we are not going to survive this. Because if he can’t come to me now, how much worse will it be when I have to render the deathblow? Page 9

  I stay for a heartbeat, then two, but then I cannot take it anymore, and I turn away, trying hard not to cry and not to run. Just to walk slowly and carefully, as if his silence hasn’t pierced a hole through my heart.

 
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