On my knees, p.24
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       On My Knees, p.24

         Part #2 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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I start to pull out a bottle, wanting something bold and red if I’m going to be staying for any length of time. But before I have a chance to really start looking, my father speaks. “You’ve been mad at me since you were fourteen,” he says, and I jolt upright. “Don’t you think it’s time to stop?” Page 95

  I stand there like an idiot as his words register with me. We have never talked about this—never—and this new reality has completely flummoxed me.

  “Time to stop?” I repeat. “What? Are we baking cookies and now they’re done? Has the clock finally run down in the final quarter of the game? Honestly, Dad, what the hell are you talking about?”

  “I’m trying to talk with you. I’m trying to get past this. ”

  “Now? We’re really going to talk about this now?” My voice is so full of bile and vitriol it doesn’t even sound like my own.

  “Those years were hard on all of us, Elle—”

  “Sylvia. ”

  He pauses, takes a breath, and begins again. “Ethan was sick. Your mother and I were frantic with worry. We all sacrificed, Sylvia. We all did everything we could to help. ”

  “Oh, you sacrificed, all right. ” I want to shout the words. Instead, they come out low. Powerful. And remarkably steady. “You fucking sacrificed me. ”

  His face turns bright red and he opens his mouth, sputtering as if trying to form words. He says nothing, though, and after a moment, I fear that he is actually having a heart attack.

  “Dad? Dad?” I’m not even aware that I have moved, but somehow I have ended up at his side. I reach for his shoulder to steady him, trying to decide if I should scream for my mother or get him off his feet or what.

  I’m about to do both when he violently jerks his arm away from my touch. “It. Is. Over. ” Each word is pronounced slowly, carefully, and with the utmost precision. “That chapter in our lives is over. Done. The door is closed, Sylvia. And it is closed tight. ” He takes a deep breath, his shoulders rising, then falling.

  “Over?” My temper has been rising with every word. How dare he. How fucking dare he. And though I know that it is a mistake to get into this now, I cannot stop the words that spew out. “Are you insane? It’s not over. It’s never over, Dad. It will never, ever be over. ”

  I suck in a breath, afraid that it might be me who has the heart attack. “It haunts me every goddamn day. Do you have any idea of what I went through? The hell I’ve gone through since then? Of what you let me go through—no, of what you demanded I go through? So don’t you dare tell me that the door is closed. I wish to hell it were. But it’s not. And it’s never going to be. That son of a bitch used me, Daddy. He used me. And even after all this time it hasn’t ended. He’s still fucking using me. I still can’t get away. And I still—shit. ”

  I cut myself off, then turn around and pound my fist into the nearest thing I find, which happens to be a wine rack. It rattles, but thankfully doesn’t fall. I don’t even try to steady it. I’m bent over, my hands on my knees, and I’m breathing hard.

  “What? What are you talking about?”

  Just tell him.

  Like Jackson said, tell him, and then let him dig you out from this mess. That’s what fathers do, right? Protect their daughters?

  Except I know better. Because my father had a thousand chances and then some to protect me before. He didn’t. I was a child, and he didn’t lift a finger.

  So why the hell would I believe that he would do anything to help me now?

  “Sylvia?” His voice is soft, and his hand on my shoulder is even softer. It doesn’t matter; to me the contact burns, and I flinch away. He takes a step back, his hands up. “Tell me. ”

  I stand there, my mind churning and my heart hurting. I want to run, but I feel bolted to the floor. I want to scream, but I have no power inside me to push the sound out.

  I am simply frozen in time, at least until Ethan calls down, cheerful and loud and asking what the hell is taking so long.

  It feels as though he has broken a spell. I race up the stairs to my brother. “Sorry. Distracted. Sorry. ” I follow him back to the dining room, needing to see Jackson, but Jackson isn’t there.

  “I think he went to the restroom,” my mother says when I ask. “Coffee?”

  She starts to stand, but I shake my head. “I’ll get it. ”

  I leave her with Ethan and then head back to the kitchen. I consider going back down to the wine cellar and telling my dad everything. Just getting it all out. Just having it done.

  But I can’t do it. I can’t stand the thought of him seeing those photos. Of actually talking to him about the fact that I came second. That he was willing to toss me to the wolves because he had to save his son even at the expense of his daughter.

  My hand stalls over the canister of coffee and I squeeze back tears—and as I do, I hear my father’s sharp curse rise up from the wine cellar. Page 96

  I frown, afraid he’s dropped a bottle or managed to hurt himself, and I hurry in that direction, running down the stairs and then stopping short when the room comes into view.

  Because there is Jackson with my father.

  And there is the envelope that Reed sent.

  And there in my father’s hands is a photograph, and I don’t need to see the front of it to know what it shows. And I don’t need to have heard the conversation to know what Jackson has said.

  My chest is tight. My heart pounding so hard I think it is going to explode.

  Both men are standing stock-still and they are staring at me. Time has stopped. The world has stopped.

  And then it all clicks again, and Jackson calls out for me as he takes a step toward me.

  “No. ” The word is ripped so hard from me that it hurts my throat.

  I turn back and race up the stairs. Ethan is in the kitchen. “I have to go. Work. A project. I forgot. I’m sorry. ”

  The words tumble out, spilling onto each other in a tangled pile of lies.

  I hug him, but I don’t wait for either protest or consent. I simply bolt.

  I climb into the limo and slam the door shut. I push the button to roll down the privacy screen and meet Edward’s eyes in the rearview as he pushes the button on the stereo to turn off his audiobook.

  “Go,” I say. “Please, just go. ”

  I see him glance out the passenger side window, and I turn that way, too. Jackson is there, standing in the doorway, his back straight, his expression unreadable.

  “Go. ” My voice is shaking, on the verge of hysteria. “Goddammit, just go. ”

  He does, and I fall back against the leather, breathing hard.

  “Thank you,” I whisper, though I doubt Edward hears.

  I push the button to lift the screen again as we drive away, leaving the house, my brother, my parents, and Jackson behind.

  The memories, however, come with me.

  I don’t remember telling Edward where to go, but when he pulls up in front of Cass’s house in Venice Beach, I know that I must have.

  I haven’t called. I haven’t done anything except sit in the back of the limo feeling sorry for myself and fighting tears. Which, of course, is why I’ve ended up at my best friend’s door. Because right now, I can’t bear to go home. I can’t bear to be alone.

  I can’t stand the thought of this being the end, but I’m so afraid that it might be.

  He told my secret. He broke our trust.

  And in doing that, I think he broke my heart, too.

  It’s almost midnight, and as I approach the door, I realize that maybe calling would have been a good idea. She could be out. She could be in the middle of a hot date. She could just be asleep.

  But she’s none of those things. In fact, she’s right there, pulling the door open and hurrying down her front walk with her arms held out to me, a cell phone in her hand. “God, I’ve been calling and calling. ”

  “Calling?” I’d turned my phone to silent.

&n
bsp; “He called. ” She waves Edward off, and as the limo disappears down the street, she leads me inside. I take off my shoes because Cass is a neat freak even in best-friend emergencies, and then let her get me settled on her couch.

  She plops down on the coffee table in front of me. “He told me he fucked up. He wants to talk to you, Syl. But mostly, I think he wants to make sure you’re okay. ”

  She leans forward and peers at me, her elbows on her knees. “Are you?”

  I draw in a breath and shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say, and the tears start flowing.

  “Oh, sweetie, no. ” She’s off the table and at my side immediately, and I curl against her, snuggling close as she holds me and rocks me. She doesn’t say anything, and I’m glad. Right now, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want advice. I don’t want to relive every horrible minute.

  I just want to be held. I just want to be comforted.

  After a while, though, I just want to sleep, and I stretch out on the couch and pull the warm, soft afghan that Cass found last year at her favorite Goodwill up around my shoulders.

  “At least let me pull out the couch for you. ”

  But I just shake my head. I’m too tired to even move, and as sleep starts to pull me under, I hear her calling someone on the phone. “I don’t know if she’ll be in tomorrow or not. But if she is, it’ll be late. Okay, thanks, Jamie. Just ask Ryan to tell Rachel or whoever needs to know. Sounds good. See you Friday, and let me know if you need any help getting ready for the party. ”

  I start to tell her that I’m definitely going in to work. I’m not letting my personal life interfere with my job. But somehow, I can’t manage to make the words come. And the next thing I know, there’s a bright light in my eyes and the room smells like coffee. Page 97

  The bright light, I realize, is from the sun streaming in through the wide-open curtains. And it’s not the entire house that smells like coffee. It’s the mug that is wedged in under my nose.

  “Welcome back,” Cass says.

  I stretch and yawn. Then I sit up and take the coffee. I sip it slowly and feel my body start to come back to life.

  I hear a rattling in the next room and glance across the tiny house to see the louvered doors to the kitchen open and Siobhan emerge, her long legs revealed by running shorts and her wild mass of bright red curls partially hidden under a baseball cap.

  “Oh,” I say. “Wow. I’m sorry. Last night. I didn’t mean to—”

  “You didn’t,” Siobhan says. “Don’t worry. We were just hanging out and talking. Besides,” she adds with a bright smile. “I owe you one. ”

  “We both do,” Cass agrees. She turns back to Siobhan. “You out of here?”

  “I thought I’d go for a jog and let you two talk. I’ll call you in an hour or so and see if you’re free for breakfast. If not, maybe we can grab a coffee this evening?”

  “Sure. Sounds good. ”

  Siobhan leans in and kisses her cheek, then heads out.

  I sit back against the couch feeling smug. “Well, guess I did do good telling you to unblock her number. ”

  Cass actually blushes a bit.

  I laugh. “I really didn’t interrupt?”

  “You seriously didn’t. We were really just watching television and talking. But one of the things we talked about was that we’re going to take it slow. ”

  “So there’s an it to be taken?”

  “Maybe. ” Now Cass is bright red, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve always liked Siobhan, even though she was a total bitch for breaking up with Cass. Because, of course, anyone who breaks up with my best friend is a total bitch by definition.

  “Siobhan will keep. ” Cass parks herself on the coffee table again, and I watch as she visibly pulls herself together. “Right now, the focus is on you. Do you want to talk about it?”

  “I don’t even want to think about it,” I admit. “But yeah, I suppose I should tell you. ” And not just because I want her advice and comfort. The truth is that although I told Cass how Reed had abused me, I never told her all of it. She doesn’t know about Ethan’s treatment or my dad’s manipulations. She doesn’t know how it made me feel.

  She’s my best friend and I’ve never told her any of that. And though I know those secrets haven’t come between us, I’m tired of hiding behind secrets and shadows, keeping parts of me hidden from the people I love.

  And so I tell her. I tell her the past, and then I tell her the present. I start with, “Ethan was sick and my parents needed money for an experimental treatment in Central America. ” And then, once she’s heard all of that—once she’s held my hands and hugged me close and battled back tears—I tell her the rest. I tell her about the photographs. And Reed’s threat to release them if Jackson doesn’t stop trying to block the movie.

  I tell her how Jackson exploded once I told him about my dad’s role in the horror with Reed, and about how Jackson showed the photos to my dad and what fresh hell he’d set in motion.

  “I told him I didn’t want to do that. I specifically told him I couldn’t deal with it. And then he went and did it anyway. ”

  Tears leak from my eyes and I brusquely wipe them away.

  “I ran out,” I say. “And then I came here. ” I shrug, because that’s the end of the story.

  Cass is just looking at me, and she’s completely silent. Still and silent.

  And since Cass is very rarely silent or still, I know that this isn’t just one of those relationship speed bumps. No, this is a giant wall. And if we’re going to get past it, Jackson and I will have to figure out a way to go over it, go under it, or knock that fucker down.

  “So what should I do?” I ask when the silence has become unbearable.

  She takes my hands. “I don’t know. He screwed up with your dad, I’ll give you that. But maybe he screwed up for the right reasons. ”

  “I trusted him with my secrets,” I say. “And to do that …” I trail off with a shudder.

  “I know, sweetie. And I get that he violated the trust. But he didn’t violate the secret. ”

  I look up sharply to meet her eyes.

  She lifts a shoulder. “You may have never talked to your dad about it, but he knew. And just because he’d never seen those photos before doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have been able to imagine every horrible thing that pervert did to you. ” Page 98

  Maybe. I don’t know. I push myself off the couch and cross the short distance to the window that looks out over her postage stamp–size backyard. “I almost told my dad myself,” I admit. “I kept hearing Jackson’s voice in my head, and I almost told him. ”

  “So maybe that means it was the right thing to do. ”

  “For me to do. It wasn’t Jackson’s place. He—he took a choice away from me. ” I close my eyes, suddenly getting it. He grabbed control. Just like Reed had done—Jackson took control from me. Not control I’d surrendered, but control that he’d stolen.

  He’d thought that he was doing the best thing for me, and I understand that. I really do, because didn’t I come close to thinking that same thing, too?

  But stealing trust—how the hell do we get past that?

  “Hey?” Cass moves up behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”

  I shrug, because I really don’t know how to answer that. I feel betrayed. Violated. And profoundly sad. “Are you going to work today?” I ask softly.

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know,” I lie. I turn around so that I’m facing her. “Maybe I was thinking we should play hooky and walk along the beach. ”

  “You are such a liar. ”

  I make an effort to look indignant.

  She narrows her eyes. “Not that I don’t love to practice my art, but you don’t need a new tat. ”

  “Excuse me?”

  “You heard me,” she said. “Every tat I’ve given you is because you either didn’t think you could handl
e something or because you fought and won. You can handle this thing with Jackson, so you don’t need the ink for that. And so far you haven’t fought, much less won. You haven’t even decided what you’re going to do. ”

  “Dammit, Cass. ” She’s right, of course, but I don’t want to admit it. Because the truth is that this time I want the ink just for strength. And my best friend is basically telling me to suck it up, buttercup, and find the strength inside myself. No crutches. Just me, my emotions, and Jackson.

  She crosses her arms over her chest and stares me down. “This battle hasn’t even started. You come to me when it’s over, and if you need the ink then, it’s yours. Until then, you can have me. But not my needles. ”

  I exhale. Loudly. “Fine. Okay. Whatever. ” I grimace. “I guess you’ll have to do. ”

  She laughs. “Guess so. ” The laughter dies soon enough, though, and she looks at me with serious eyes. “So have you decided what you’re going to do? Are you going to talk to him today?”

  “I don’t know. ” The admission makes me feel slightly ill. This is Jackson, dammit. The man I love. The man I trusted.

  The one person in the whole world with whom I feel the most myself, even more so than Cass who is so, so dear to me.

  “I don’t know,” I repeat, and that one simple truism scares me to death.

  “I get that,” Cass says, but as she speaks, she looks toward the door through which Siobhan left only a few minutes before. “But doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?”

  Do they?

  I think about Jackson and the way Cass’s words eerily echo his from a few nights ago. Then I hug myself, because I don’t know the answer.

  And I can’t help but wonder how we got to this point. And how the hell we can ever come back.

  He’d blown it.

  And, dammit, he knew that he’d blown it and wanted to tell her as much.

  Not that she was giving him the chance.

  She wasn’t answering his calls, texts, or emails.

  She hadn’t come in to work on Thursday at all.

  Now it was Friday and he knew she was in the building, but he couldn’t find her at any of her usual locations on twenty-seven, thirty-five, or Damien’s penthouse.

  “She’s not working from her desk today,” Karen had said on twenty-seven.

  “She’s in the building,” Rachel had said on thirty-five. “But I think she may be camped out in the library. ”

  She wasn’t, of course.

  “I recommend groveling,” Damien had said when he passed Rachel’s desk on his way to a lunch meeting. “Of course you have to find her to do that. ”

  Jackson stiffened, remembering all too well that it had been Damien who’d told Sylvia about his paternity action. But that had been public record, and Damien had only been trying to help.

  What Jackson had done—insinuating himself between Sylvia and her dad—well, he’d been trying to help, too. He’d just fucked the helping up royally. Page 99

  Now it was Jackson who was the asshole. And Damien looked genuinely sympathetic.

  “Any ideas?” Jackson asked.

  “You could try the gym. ” He grabbed the folio that Rachel handed him. “And if all else fails, you can catch her at Jamie’s tonight. ”

 
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