On my knees, p.21
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       On My Knees, p.21

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
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It’s after eleven, and we’re both exhausted. Big emotional revelations will do that. “If you say go out dancing, I will have to hurt you. ”

  “I want to sit in bed with you beside me, a drink in my hand, and the television playing some mindless program. Possibly with a book, but that depends on how mindless the show is. What?” he says, apparently realizing that I’m staring at him.

  “Nothing,” I say. “Just that I only this minute realized how absolutely perfect you are. ”

  A shadow flickers across his eyes. “I worry, you know. That I’m doing the right thing for her even without factoring in all the bullshit with the movie. I mean, what do I know about being a dad?”

  I take his hand. “I think worry is one of the signs of a good father. I think that worry is part of the package. ” I brush his cheek with my thumb. “You’re going to do great. She’s a lucky girl to have you. ”

  I don’t know if I’ve eased his concerns, but the shadow fades, replaced by a slow smile. “And you?”

  “Me?”

  “Are you lucky to have me?”

  My heart twists. “Luckiest woman in the world. ”

  He holds my gaze; his is so intense and vibrant that it not only steals my thoughts, but makes my body hum.

  “What?” I finally manage.

  “I’m just looking forward to our lazy night in bed. ”

  “Oh. ” A flicker of disappointment cuts through me.

  “In the interest of full disclosure,” Jackson says. “I should probably tell you that I have every intention of fucking you awake tomorrow morning. ”

  “Oh. ” I lick my lips. “Thank you for the heads-up, Mr. Steele. I look forward to getting fucked. ” Page 83

  It is, frankly, a truly wonderful night. Law & Order isn’t mindless, but we’ve both seen the episode before so it might as well be. I flip through a photography magazine while we watch, and Jackson reads the book that Psycho was based on, then tells me we need to watch it over Halloween weekend.

  “Maybe after Jamie’s party?”

  “It’s a date. ”

  I am actually going so far as to write the movie date into my phone’s calendar when it rings—and the caller ID shows Siobhan O’Leary. I frown, but answer. “Siobhan?”

  “Hey, Sylvia. Long time, huh?”

  “Yeah. Hey. What’s up?”

  “I saw the pictures of you and Cass. The ones that have been going around after you guys were at Westerfield’s. And, well, I’ve been meaning to call her, so I thought that was like a sign. ”

  I smile. Siobhan always said signs were bullshit.

  “Anyway, I tried to call, but I think she’s blocked my number. ”

  “Yeah,” I say. “She did. ”

  “Oh. ” I hear a clicking, and imagine that she’s tapping a pencil near the phone. “So I figure I have two options. I can get a new phone number, or you can ask her to unblock. I figure the second option is better, because I’m pretty attached to my number. And if I get a new one and she hangs up on me, I’m just going to be out the cost of a new number. Not that she’s not worth it, but it seems a little wasteful. ”

  Okay, she’s made me laugh. And that’s always a good sign.

  “All right,” I say.

  “Really?”

  “No promises, but I’ll ask her. Wait a couple of days before you try again. She might have to talk herself into it. ”

  “That’s okay,” she says. “I’ll wait as long as it takes. ” And she sounds so sweet and enthusiastic and just genuinely happy that I am grinning when I end the call.

  “What’s up?”

  “Cass’s old girlfriend wants to get back in touch. I told her I’d tell Cass to unblock her number. ”

  “This is a good thing?”

  “I think so,” I say. “Siobhan and Cass always clicked. I mean, they fit together like watch gears, you know?”

  He smiles just a little. “I do. ”

  “It blew me away when they broke up—it was for all the wrong reasons, too. Siobhan’s bi, and her parents were pressuring her to get back together with an old boyfriend. ”

  “It didn’t work. ”

  “Guess not,” I say. “But now I’m a little worried. I don’t want Cass to get her heart broken again. ”

  He rolls over and kisses my shoulder. “If they click—if it’s right—then Cass will be fine. After all,” he adds gently, “that’s what second chances are for. And you and I should know that better than anyone. ”

  twenty-three

  I spend the entire next morning running around like a crazy person at work, and so I feel perfectly justified taking a small break in the early afternoon to bring my camera down to the graphic design department so that I can pull the memory card and print out a poster-size copy of my photograph of the pier.

  Not that I think I’m Ansel Adams—or even Wyatt Royce—but I’m proud of it, and I think that Jackson will like it, too. Maybe it’s silly, but I want to surprise him with a present. Something unique. Something me.

  Which explains why I’m about to use work resources for my personal gain.

  Thankfully, no one in the graphics department has a problem with this. In fact, the manager, Joan, thinks it’s such a great idea that she offers to help me so that I’m certain to get all the various settings on the printer right.

  She also offers to print off the rest of the images on my card so that I’ll have hard copies. Of course I agree, and while she copies my files, I hang out in the department talking with the artists and looking at the preliminary sketches of the proposed logos for the resort.

  “I’ll have a messenger walk them up to you when the slew is printed,” Joan says as she hands the memory card back to me.

  I thank her profusely, then head up for a meeting with Aiden followed by a telephone conference in Damien’s office with Dallas Sykes about that boutique that I’d mentioned at dinner. Turns out he thinks it’s a great idea.

  I want to go down to twenty-six and see Jackson, but he dropped me at my car this morning before heading on to a warehouse in San Bernadino to look at samples of various building materials and won’t be back until late.

  When I return to my desk, I’m pleased to see that Joan has come through. There’s a thick clasp envelope with my name on it lying on my desktop, and I can’t wait to see how the photos turned out. Page 84

  I open the clasp, dump the contents on my desk, and then back away as quickly as if I’d been attacked by a snake.

  I stand there, my back pressed to the fabric-covered wall of my cubicle, my stomach roiling.

  These aren’t the photographs I’ve taken of structures around Santa Monica. Instead, the pictures are of a teenage me. Half-naked. Arching back for the camera. Touching myself. Arranged in all the poses that Reed dictated. And I’d complied, because that was the job—to do what he said. To get the money.

  To save my brother.

  What did it matter that I’d been ashamed? That I’d hated it?

  I realize with a start that I am standing there frozen. But this is a cubicle, and anyone can pop by and stick their head through the door.

  With a small, panicked cry, I burst forward, then start to shove all the photos back into the envelope. As I do, I find a small, white envelope mixed in among them. It has no address, just my name.

  I stare at it, certain that whatever is in the envelope is worse than those photos.

  I don’t want to open it. I don’t want to know.

  Roughly, I shove it to the far side of my desk, and then scoop the photos back into the big envelope. I seal the clasp. I cram the whole thing in my purse.

  I want to run to the shredder, but I know that I can’t. I have to keep them.

  And, dammit, I have to know what the letter says.

  Slowly, I open it. Inside the envelope there is a small piece of paper with just a few words, but they are enough to send me falling into my chair as my knees buc
kle.

  The public sees the movie or these pictures. Tell Steele it’s up to him.

  Oh god oh god oh god.

  I sit there, my hands on my knees, trying desperately to remember how to breathe. I’m not doing a very good job, and I’m afraid that any minute, I’m going to pass out. But I know that I have to hold it together. I’m in a fucking cubicle and I don’t want anyone to see me like this.

  I try to think what to do, but my mind doesn’t seem to be working right.

  Jackson. I need Jackson.

  I fumble for my phone, then have to resist the urge to fling it across the room when it rolls to voice mail. I try again and again, but there is no answer. I start to send a text message, but my hands are shaking too much.

  I need to get out of here. If I can just get out of here, then maybe I can breathe.

  I take my tote bag and my phone and I head toward the elevator, then ride it all the way to the lobby. When I arrive and have cell service again, I text Rachel. I’m proud that I’ve calmed enough to manage that small task. I tell her that I’m meeting with a list of contractors and will be out of the office for the rest of the day.

  Then I get back into the elevator and descend to the parking garage. And then, when I’m finally in my car, I clutch the steering wheel, close my eyes, and cry and cry and cry.

  Enough.

  After a good ten minutes lost in a crying jag, I grip the steering wheel, squeeze my eyes shut tight, and force myself to calm the fuck down. This sucks, yes. It’s completely, totally, one hundred percent fucked up.

  But that doesn’t mean I have to go spiraling down into hysterics like some doe-eyed twit from the seventeenth century.

  I am not a weak woman. I’m not.

  I saw what I wanted with the Cortez resort, didn’t I? And I went after it.

  I found the strength to walk away from Jackson five years ago when I thought I had to. And, yes, I had the mettle to later admit that I still wanted him, and that we could battle my nightmares together.

  All of which translates into strong, right? So what the hell am I doing breaking down in my car?

  I already melted down once over this asshole’s pictures of me. I’m not going to do it again just because there are more. Even if these new pictures are a billion times more horrible.

  I’m not weak, I tell myself again. Because the more I say it, the more I believe it. I’m strong.

  Hasn’t Jackson told me so over and over and over?

  Jackson.

  Christ, I’ve been selfish. Wanting him beside me to help me find strength, when the fact is that he’s just as deep into this as me. More, maybe, since at the end of the day what Reed wants is to make the movie, not release the pictures. Jackson’s going to be just as angry as I am scared. And he’s going to need me just as much as I need him.

  Even while the thought makes me sad, it also comforts me. Because we’re in this together, he and I, and the truth is that we’re a pretty damn good team. Not only are we planning an entire resort together, but we’ve survived a hell of a lot of shit.

  We can do this.

  Granted, I don’t know how, since Reed has put us at crosspurposes—but we’ll figure it out. That’s what we do. Page 85

  But I need Jackson beside me to do it, and so I rub my hands over my eyes, tell myself very sternly that I cannot break down over the phone, and dial his number again.

  This time—thank you thank you thank you—he answers on the first ring.

  “Good afternoon, Ms. Brooks,” he says in the kind of voice that suggests that he’s happy to hear from me, but deep into business-mode. “I’m just sitting down with Mr. Pierce to talk price on a couple thousand tons of burnished copper plating. Can I call you back in a few?”

  “I—yes. Of course. ”

  There is a pause, and when he speaks again, his tone is low and careful, as if he’s treading over broken glass. “I’ll leave right now. Where are you?”

  I close my eyes, a little ashamed that I’m so relieved, and that he knows me so well.

  “In my car, but I’ll meet you at the Stark suite at the Century Plaza hotel,” I say, referring to the suite that the company keeps open for visiting clients. I happen to know it’s currently unused. And while it’s foolish, I don’t want to show him those horrible pictures inside either of our homes.

  I close my eyes and shudder as, once again, the memory of those images washes over me. “Actually, the bar,” I say, because right now, I really want a drink.

  I hear him curse softly under his breath. “Are you okay?”

  “No,” I admit. “But I will be when I see you. ”

  “What’s happened?”

  But I can’t tell him. Not like this. And the truth is that I don’t want to have to tell him at all.

  I sigh. “I’ll leave something for you at the front desk. Get it, then come find me. ”

  I know he wants to argue, but all he says is “I’m on my way. ”

  He clicks off, and I close my eyes, letting the relief wash over me.

  I take a few moments to pull myself together and fix my makeup before I pull out of the garage and start the trek west from downtown to Century City.

  There’s a wreck on the 10, so it takes me longer to get there than I’d planned, but Jackson is coming all the way from San Bernadino, so I know that he has not arrived before me. I get the key to the suite from the girl at the front desk, then leave the envelope for Jackson. I hesitate before handing it over to her, not liking the fact that it is out of my hands.

  Somehow, that seems like a metaphor for the whole damn situation.

  I consider going straight to the room, after all, but the lobby bar is too appealing to pass up. It’s not quite four, so the post-work crowd hasn’t yet arrived and there are tables to spare. Even so, I sit at the actual bar, my back to the main lobby area, and order a glass of pinot.

  The bartender is not a chatty type, and I appreciate that. I have worked through panic and nausea, and now I am just drifting. Not in a happy place so much as an away place.

  I’ll come back down to earth when Jackson gets here. Until then, I’ll drink wine and pretend like there’s nothing wrong in my world.

  I finish my first glass and then another. I’ve just taken the first sip from the third glass the bartender slid in front of me when I realize that he’s there.

  I haven’t seen him. Haven’t heard him.

  I am simply aware of him. His heat. His intensity.

  He is like a radio emitting a low, powerful frequency, and right now, I am completely tuned to him.

  Slowly, I put down my glass, then look over my shoulder to find him. He is only standing at the edge of the carpet that separates the bar area from the marble flooring. He’d gone to work in casual dress, appropriate for spending the day in a manufacturer’s warehouse.

  There is, however, nothing casual about him.

  Even in jeans and a simple white button-down shirt, he projects power and ferocity. He holds the envelope with the photos and threatening note in his hand, and though it hangs loose at his side, the knuckles on the hand that hold it are white, and I can see the tension in his arms.

  His face tells a similar story. His jaw is so firm that I am certain his teeth are clenched. As for his eyes—they burn with the heat of a man about to go to battle, and I am certain that a similar fire reflected in the eyes of ancient warriors before they went out to decimate a village.

  In other words, Jackson is holding it together—but his composure comes at a price.

  I open my mouth to say his name, but he shakes his head and holds up a finger. Then he steps to the bar and puts down a hundred-dollar bill. He takes my hand to help me from my stool, and the shock that runs through me from even such simple contact is enough that I must hold on to the edge of the bar for a moment in order to keep my knees from collapsing out from under me.

  Page 86

/>   He is tight with contained energy, and the thought that I will be the woman in his arms when he lets himself go makes me wet with anticipation.

  Dear god I want this. Want him. I want the release of abandonment. The safety of giving myself to him. I want the delirium of being swept out of myself.

  And I want the hours of bliss in which the photographs and the threat and the horror that surround us are, if not forgotten, at least pushed aside. Diminished by the power of the explosion that will erupt between us.

  As he leads me through the hotel toward the elevator, I practically vibrate with need. I feel it from Jackson as well—the intensity and effort with which he is holding back—and I fear that we will both succumb before we even make it to the room.

  I’m far from wrong, and the moment that we are through the doors, Jackson slams me against the wall with such force that a picture falls from its hook to the floor. His hands cage me, and though he doesn’t touch me anywhere else, he is so close that my entire body sizzles from the heat of him.

  “Tell me you want this. ”

  “I want it. Please, Jackson, you know I want it. ”

  “Tell me what you want. ”

  I swallow, but I know that I have to say it, because he will not touch me until I do. And so help me, I cannot stand to wait even another second to feel this man against me. “I want you to take me. To use me. You feel out of control because of what that bastard is doing to us? Then take control now. Take it from me, Jackson. I want you to. ”

  As I finish speaking, I hold my wrists together and out to him.

  He tilts his head and breathes softly. I can almost see him thinking—and I can definitely see the desire rising in his eyes. And when he unbuckles his belt and rips it off, I know that I have won—and my body throbs in anticipation.

  Every part of me is sensitive now, as if my entire body is simply one erogenous zone waiting for his touch. So much so that when his fingers brush my arms as he wraps the belt multiple times around my wrists and forearms, a wild tremor cuts through, and I know that I am on the verge of having the most explosive orgasm of my life.

  He takes his time making sure the belt is secure, and when my wrists are bound tight together and there is no way that I can wriggle free, he gently eases them up above my head. I hold them there, understanding what he wants, as he gently traces his fingers over my still-clothed body.

  I tremble, wanting so much more than this soft pleasure. This sensual tease.

  “Now tell me why. ” He pulls me close to him so that I feel his erection against my abdomen. I am breathing hard, my senses on overdrive.

  Why? Because right then I think that I will die if he doesn’t take me.

  I don’t say that though. My mind is a whirl, my thoughts scurrying.

  “Tell me,” he repeats. His voice is a low tease, a gentle whisper. But there is a hard undercurrent, and it is a demand. Either I answer, or he backs off. “Why,” he repeats. “Tell me, baby. ”

  He runs his hands up my side, and then along my arms that are stretched above my head. His fingers reach the belt that has bound my wrists together and he grabs hold, jerking it upward so that I gasp and rise up onto the balls of my feet. “Why give yourself to a man like this?”

 
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