On my knees, p.23
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       On My Knees, p.23

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
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“A sexy thought?” I tease.

  He chuckles. “I have those every moment I’m with you, so there’s really no need to remark on them. No, I think I may know a way out. ”

  I shift in the seat, turning serious. “A way out? You mean from Reed’s threat?”

  “We’ve been thinking about this as if it’s a straight line. Like tug-of-war. You pull your side over, and my side loses. I pull my side over—”

  “And mine loses. I get it. So?”

  “What if the game isn’t tug-of-war?” He takes his eyes off the road for just a second to look at me. “What if it’s something else entirely? A triangle and not a straight line. ”

  “I don’t know what you mean. ”

  “I mean that Reed is playing you and me against each other. But he’s discounting your father. ”

  I stiffen. “My father?”

  “Hear me out. Your dad set the whole thing up originally, right? So if your dad confronts him—” Page 91

  “Are you insane?” I want to stand up. To pace. And the fact that I’m trapped in a moving car only adds to my irritation. “That would mean me confronting my dad first. You know I don’t want to do that. ”

  “Maybe it’s time,” he says gently.

  “The hell it is. ”

  “Maybe he needs to understand the full impact of what he did to you,” he continues softly, as if I hadn’t protested at all.

  “No. No. Absolutely not. ” Just the thought makes me want to throw up, and I clutch my knees, desperate to escape this claustrophobic box.

  Just the idea—just the thought that my father might know about those horrible photos—makes me both terrified and furious.

  “Do you think I would suggest this if I saw another way? This is all I’ve been thinking about. How the hell do we get out of this mess? And the truth of it is that it all goes back to your dad. To the choices he made and what he did to you. ”

  “To me,” I say. “And I’ve dealt with it. And I don’t want to open those wounds. ”

  “Sweetheart, we both know you haven’t really dealt with it. ”

  “Goddammit. ” I slam my palm against the dashboard, because trapped in this car there’s no other way to lash out.

  He winces, but doesn’t miss a beat. “And the truth is, it wasn’t just you. Your son of a bitch of a father was playing fast and loose with my life, too. ”

  I cross my arms over my chest and say nothing.

  “He’s responsible for those photographs,” Jackson says. “He sold you, Sylvia. He hurt you. He’s your father and he didn’t protect you, and he’s as much to blame for all of this as Reed is. ”

  I keep my lips pressed together, but I don’t deny it. I know the role I played—it was my choice not to walk away because at the end of the day it was about Ethan—but none of that changes what my father did. None of that erases the fact that he set the wheels in motion and that he essentially did exactly what Jackson has said: he used me to protect Ethan. Balanced the well-being of one child against the well-being of another.

  So, yes, I understand that. And I understand the rest, too. “Reed’s threatening me in order to get to you. I get that, Jackson. I do. ” I lick my lips. “But I can’t confront my dad. I’m not ready to talk to him about it. ” I draw in a breath. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. Please tell me you understand that. Because I need you beside me tonight. And I need you to not be mad at me. ”

  “Oh, baby. ” He reaches over and takes my hand. “I’m not mad. Not at you, anyway. As for your father—well, that’s a different story altogether. ”

  “A secret story,” I say firmly.

  “Yes,” he says, though I can tell the words eat at him. “A secret. ”

  “Oh my god, look at you!” I throw my arms around Ethan’s neck, then laugh as he picks me up and spins me around. My brother is tall and athletic, and he maneuvers me through the air as easily as if I weigh no more than a feather.

  That wasn’t always the way. When he was sick in his tweens and early teens he’d faded away to almost nothing, and the robust little boy all but disappeared. When he got healthy, he started working out. And though he never told me so specifically, I always figured that he did it as a way to say “fuck you” to the disease.

  Now, he’s pretty damn hot, even if he is my brother. He’s got the cut, athletic body, which is impressive all on its own. But couple that with his dreamy, deep-set eyes and thick brown hair, and he’s the kind of guy who never wants for a date.

  Speaking of, I slide my arm around Jackson’s waist and lean my head against his upper arm. “This is Jackson,” I say. “Jackson, this is my brother, Ethan. ”

  “I thought as much,” Jackson says with a grin as he reaches out to shake Ethan’s hand, but ends up doing one of those mutual shake-and-shoulder-clap things that men do. “Your sister can’t stop talking about you. ”

  “Yeah? I thought it was you she couldn’t stop talking about. ”

  I roll my eyes and wave a hand at the limo. It’s not exactly proper office procedure, but I want to impress my baby brother, and Edward assured me that the car would otherwise sit idle tonight. “Go,” I say firmly, and we all climb in and get settled as Edward shuts the door behind us.

  “Okay,” Ethan says. “Now I’m impressed. ”

  “That was the idea,” I admit as Jackson takes care of getting us each a drink.

  “Are you still seeing Samantha?” I ask. Page 92

  He shakes his head. “No. That ended pretty abruptly. ” He shrugs. “It was for the best. ”

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “Why?”

  He looks at me like I’m crazy. “Because I was moving five thousand miles away. ”

  I decide not to mention that sometimes people do have long-distance relationships. I know my brother too well, and if he’s back in California, he’s going to want to test the local waters. And since there are plenty of California girls who will find my brother very appealing, I guess that’s okay.

  He eyes Jackson. “I would ask you for advice on where to meet girls, but I’m kind of hoping that you don’t have a clue. At least not as far as Los Angeles is concerned. ”

  “I don’t,” Jackson says, shooting a glance my way. “As far as local pickup spots, I’m not even close to a fount of knowledge. Not even a trickle or a drip. ”

  “So, you two are really serious, then?”


  “What? I mean, I would apologize for being all nosy, but you’re my sister and we’re trapped in the back of a limo together for the next hour, so I figure now’s the time to do my brotherly duty. ”

  Jackson’s lip twitch. “Yes,” he says. “We’re really serious. ”

  “’Cause I had wifi on the leg of the flight from New York to here, and four hours is a long time to surf the internet. Saw a lot of interesting things about the two of you. ” He turns to me. “You’re dating a downright celebrity. You know that, right?”

  “Ethan …” This time, my voice holds a warning.

  He raises his hands. “I’m just saying. ” He shifts so that he’s facing Jackson. “And I’m also saying that if you’re screwing around on my sister with that hot little redhead, I will have your balls for breakfast. ”

  Jackson’s brows rise. “Fortunately for you, I’m not seeing the hot little redhead. Megan’s a friend, as Sylvia knows. ”

  “Fortunately for me?” Ethan repeats. “What? You don’t think I could take you?”

  Jackson sizes my brother up. To be honest, my money’s on Jackson, but Ethan would definitely give him a go. “I think it would be a hell of a fight,” Jackson says diplomatically. “But what I meant was that it’s fortunate that you won’t have to eat such a truly unappetizing meal. And I don’t have to sacrifice my balls. ”

  For a moment, Ethan looks shocked. Then he raises his drink in a salute, before tossing the whole thing back. “Oh, yeah,” he says to me. “I like him. ”
r />   “Good,” I say, then plant a quick, hard kiss on Jackson’s mouth. “So do I. ”

  Ethan fixes himself another drink, then asks me if I want one. I hold up the scotch that Jackson poured for me, still untouched. “I’m good for now. You ought to slow down. ”

  “I’m in a limo,” he says. “Slowing down isn’t an option. ”

  I meet Jackson’s eyes, and he finishes the rest of his. “I’ll take another,” he says, then shrugs when I lift my brows. “What? Your brother has a point. ”

  “I had no idea you two would turn into a comedy act. ” I speak sternly, but inside I’m gleeful, thrilled that my boyfriend and my brother are getting along.

  “I’m surprised you aren’t having another. ” Ethan’s voice has turned serious. “I mean, what with going to see Mom and Dad. I know it upsets you, and I really do appreciate you coming down with me. Honest. It means a lot. ”

  “I’m not upset,” I lie.

  “Bullshit. I know you, remember? Grew up together. Shared the same house. Built forts out of boxes and blankets. ” He sticks his hand out. “Ethan Brooks. Nice to meet you. ”

  “When did you turn so sarcastic?”

  “Last Thursday. And don’t change the subject. ”

  I take a long sip of scotch, and tell myself it’s not because I need it. “It’s just Mom and Dad,” I say. “You know I don’t love all the family drama. ”

  “I know you don’t love it. I don’t know why. ” He turns narrowed eyes on Jackson. “Do you know why?”

  He shakes his head, lying so easily for me. “Lots of people have issues with their parents. ”

  “You got that right. Do you?”

  “You have no idea,” Jackson says.

  “You know she helped out when I was sick, right? I mean, did she tell you that?”

  “Modeling,” Jackson says. “Yes, I know about that. And I’m sorry you were so bad off when you were a kid. Children shouldn’t have to suffer like that. ” Page 93

  “They sure as hell shouldn’t,” Ethan agrees. He looks at me. “But I’m fine now, and you’re a big reason why. You and Mom and Dad. And it just bugs the crap out of me that the people in the world who mean the most to me don’t get along at all. ”

  “Ethan …”

  “Come on, Silly. You know you can talk to me about anything. ”

  “I know. ” The truth is, it’s been a very long time since we’ve really talked. But when we were kids, we had no secrets. And I liked that. I miss that.

  “Parents fuck up their kids, Syl. It’s what they do. And I know it must have been worse for you. You had to deal with all the shit that went along with me being sick. And you did the modeling thing and that’s cool and all, but it’s got to have been hard work, right?”

  I can only nod. He really doesn’t know the half of it. And as I sit there and try to keep my shit together, Jackson reaches over and takes my hand.

  Just casually holding hands with his girlfriend. And yet the strength in his touch keeps me sane and steady. My white knight, I think. Always ready to rescue me.

  “So you’re working your ass off, and Mom and Dad are getting the money. For me. Did you even get to keep any of it? I mean, like in a college fund or something?”

  I shake my head. “I didn’t want the money. ” My voice is soft, but earnest. “I did it for you. ”

  My voice hitches, and I hope that he doesn’t notice.

  “Yeah, well. ” He shrugs, and there is a weirdly awkward silence. “Look, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s cool. The bottom line is that I love you. I mean, you’re my sister, so there’s that. But you’re also my hero. ” He glances at Jackson. “Sorry for the syrupy sweetness, but I’ve been away for a long time. ”

  “I think that kind of sweetness is very appropriate,” he says, then kisses the top of my head even as fat tears spill out of my eyes.

  “You’re not allowed to make me cry. ”

  “Sure I am. That’s what annoying little brothers are for. ”

  I laugh—and I cry a little more, too. But it’s a good kind of crying and I wipe the tears away. And as I do, I realize I’m smiling. Despite the fact that we are heading to my parents, I’m actually smiling.

  And that’s the crux of it, just like I told Jackson. Maybe I could have walked away. Maybe I could have said no to Reed. But I didn’t.

  So yes, I whored myself out.

  But I don’t hate myself. Because sitting across from me is the reason I did it.

  And I love him desperately.

  So I’ll hate Reed for what he did to me.

  And I’ll hate my father for not protecting me.

  My brother, though, is innocent. And he never needs to know.


  The house in Irvine is picture-perfect.

  The lawn is manicured. The trees just tall enough.

  The cars are tasteful and expensive, but not too showy.

  The pool guy comes every Thursday. The cleaning lady every Tuesday.

  My mother volunteers at the library. My dad is enjoying early retirement after several long-shot real estate investments paid off spectacularly.

  All in all, they’re an upper-middle-class couple with a Norman Rockwell home on one of the prettiest streets in one of the prettiest towns in the country.

  Too bad what’s inside these walls isn’t as pretty as the outside. Because even though Vivaldi is playing over the wireless speakers and the dining table has meat loaf and potatoes, I feel as though I’m trapped in that house in Amityville, and any minute now, blood is going to pour out of the walls.

  Frankly, that couldn’t be any worse than the horror I’m currently experiencing.

  My mother has moved from asking me when Jackson and I are getting married to asking me what I do at Stark International. Which would be a reasonable question if this weren’t the third time she has asked me that in the last ninety minutes. Everything I say to her seems to go to some other place, and it has been that way since Ethan got sick. As if once he got ill, she had no energy to devote to the other child, and so she tossed platitudes my way and hoped that I wouldn’t notice.

  And that strange disconnect continued even after Ethan recovered. By that time, I was on my way out the door, but even when I would come home from boarding school, she never asked about my schoolwork or my friends or anything. And if I volunteered information, she would listen, but she wouldn’t really hear.

  It’s something I realized early on, and I used to test her on it. I’d tell her something specific. Once, we were sitting down for lunch and I told her, “Donna bought a horse, and then she fell off and broke her leg. ” Page 94

  She told me that was just terrible and she hoped Donna was doing better.

  “Did I tell you what happened to Donna?” I asked later that evening. “About the horse?” And she assured me that she’d never heard the story before.

  She doesn’t have a memory deficiency. She doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. What she has is a son, and only a son.

  The daughter doesn’t count.

  I don’t know why.

  I don’t know if she was complicit in the sessions with Reed. I don’t know if Ethan’s illness just made her snap a little bit. I don’t know if she is mad at me for something I did so very long ago.

  I don’t know, and I no longer care. As far as I’m concerned, family is what you make of it, and the only reason I’m in this house of horrors tonight is that Ethan is still my family.

  I make a valiant effort to describe my assistant duties to my mom, and then give her a rundown on what I’m doing for the resort.

  “She’s doing an amazing job,” Jackson says, directing his words at both my mother and my father.

  He’s been the perfect boyfriend so far. Staying by my side, squeezing my hand in support when my parents get weird. And, thank god, not saying anything that even hints at my past or those damn photos tha
t he thinks we should show my dad.

  Jackson starts to go into more detail about my job—about how I’m juggling my assistant and project manager responsibilities, about the quality of my work and the excellence of my ideas.

  My mom’s eyes glaze over, but from the far end of the table, my dad says, “That’s what I’m talking about. ”

  I turn toward him, not sure if he’s talking to me and Jackson or to Ethan, whose ear he’s been bending all evening.

  “Talking about what?”

  “What Jackson was just saying to your mother,” he says. “About your job, and the extra time and work to essentially perform two jobs. ” He turns back to Ethan. “That’s the way to get ahead. Hard work. Sacrifice. ” He meets my eyes. “I’m proud of you, Elle. ”

  I feel cold. Both from his use of a name I abandoned long ago and from his statement of pride. I want nothing from this man, least of all his validation. And when Jackson squeezes my hand in solidarity beneath the table, I think that I have never been more grateful to have someone in my life who understands me so well.

  It’s his support that gives me strength to respond. “But sacrifice isn’t always about work, is it?” I say, even though I know I should just keep quiet. Because silence is the only guaranteed way to keep my emotions in tight.

  Except I don’t take my own advice. And I keep talking, the words sort of spewing out as if they have a life of their own. “I mean, some people sacrifice a kidney to save someone they love. ”

  I keep my eyes on my father and my hand tight in Jackson’s. I don’t want to see Ethan. Not right now. Not when I feel so hollow and raw. “Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his son to God. And in that movie, Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep has to sacrifice one child to save the other. ” I deliberately take a sip of water, never breaking eye contact. “Must be hard. ”

  It may be my imagination, but I think I see his upper lip start to sweat. I lean back, feeling just a little bit smug.

  “I think I’m going to open another bottle of wine,” my dad says. He’s speaking very slowly and very deliberately, and he is moving in an equally careful manner as he pushes away from the table and heads for the kitchen. “Come with me, Sylvia? Working for Stark, you must have developed at least a bit of a head for fine wine. ”

  If he’d called me Elle, I think I would have said no. But I surprise myself by pushing my chair back.

  Jackson doesn’t release my hand right away, and when I look at him, he tilts his head in a silent question. Should I come, too?

  I almost say yes, but then I shake my head. I can do this. I can make it through the night as the dutiful daughter.

  And then I can get the hell out of here.

  I follow my dad through the butler’s pantry, then into the kitchen. Right between the kitchen and the living area is an archway with an iron gate instead of a door. I follow my father past the gate, then down the stairs to a small wine cellar with just enough room for the two of us and the hundred or so bottles of wine stacked neatly in the sturdy wooden racks.

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