Stark International Trilogy Book 3
Jackson Steele and Sylvia Brooks are back in the powerful finale of a provocative, sizzling-hot new erotic trilogy set in the world of J. Kenner’s beloved Stark novels: Release Me, Claim Me, and Complete Me.
He’s the only man I’ve ever loved, and the one man I can’t bear to lose.
Jackson Steel is my light in this world. Charismatic, bold, and always in control, he knows what he wants and how to get it—and absolutely nothing stands in his way. His hold on me is magnetic, his claim on me complete, his kiss my ultimate escape.
We both harbor dark secrets that could tear our lives apart. Though we’ve tried to bury our pasts, there are certain people who won’t let us forget. But the closer danger comes, the brighter the fire between us burns—our ecstasy consuming and soothing us both.
There’s no telling what lies ahead, but I know that Jackson never gives in without a fight. I’d do anything he wants to keep him safe, give him anything he needs. And now that we’re in deep, nothing can make me run.
Under My Skin is intended for mature audiences.
Under My Skin is Story # 3 in the The Steele Stories (Stark International) series.
Under My Skin - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 09/01/2015 Story Type Book Primary Characters Jackson Steele Eleanor "Sylvia" Brooks Secondary Characters Damien Stark Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Jeremiah Stark Series The Steele Stories (Stark International) Place in Series Story #3 Genre Contemporary Romance
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There is peace in these moments between sleep and wakefulness. In the soft minutes that seem to stretch into hours, warm and comforting like a gift bestowed by a benevolent universe.
This is a world of dreams, and right now it is safe. It is right. And I want to stay here, wrapped tight in the comfort of his arms.
But dreams often turn into nightmares, and as I move through the corridors of sleep, dark fingers of fear reach out to me. My pulse pounds and my breath comes too shallow. I curl toward him, craving his touch, but he is not there, and I sit bolt upright, my skin clammy from a sheen of sweat. My heart pounding so hard I will surely crack a rib.
I’m awake now, alone and disoriented as a wild panic cuts through me. I’m afraid, but I don’t remember why.
Too quickly though, it all rushes back, and as the memories return with wakefulness, I long to slide back into oblivion. Because whatever horror my mind would fabricate in dreams couldn’t be any worse than the reality that now surrounds me, cold and stark.
A reality in which the world is crumbling down around my ears.
A reality in which the man I love desperately is suspected of murder.
With a sigh, I press a hand to my cheek, my memory sharpening as I shake off the haze of slumber. He’d brushed a kiss over my cheek before slipping out of our warm cocoon and into the chilly morning air. At the time I’d been content to stay behind, snuggled tight in the blankets that still held his scent and radiated the lingering heat from his body.
Now I wish I had roused myself when he did, because I don’t want to be alone. Alone is when panic creeps closer.
Alone is when I’m certain that I will lose him.
Alone is what I fear.
And yet even as the thought enters my mind, the solitude is shattered. The bedroom door bursts open, and a dark-haired, blue-eyed bundle of sunshine races toward me, then leaps onto the bed and starts bouncing, her energy so vibrant I laugh despite myself. “Sylvie! Sylvie! I made toast with Uncle Jackson!”
“Toast? Really?” It’s work, but I manage to keep my voice perky and upbeat despite the fact that fear still clings to me like cobwebs. I give Ronnie a quick, tight hug, but my attention isn’t on her anymore. Instead, I am focused entirely on the man in the doorway.
He stands casually on the threshold, a wooden tray in his hands. His coal black hair is untidy from sleep, and he sports two days of beard stubble. He wears flannel pajama bottoms and a pale gray T-shirt. By every indication, he is a man who has just awakened. A man with nothing on his mind but the morning and breakfast and the bits of news that fill the paper tucked under his arm.
But dear god, he is so much more. He is power and tenderness, strength and control. He is the man who has colored my days and illuminated my nights.
Jackson Steele. The man I love. The man I once foolishly tried to leave. The man who grabbed hold and pulled me back, then slayed my demons, and in doing so claimed my heart.
But it is those very demons that have brought us to this moment.
Because Robert Cabot Reed was one of those demons, and now Reed is dead. Someone entered his Beverly Hills home and bashed his head in with a decorative piece of carved ivory.
And I can’t help but fear that the someone was Jackson, and that soon he will have to pay the price.
We arrived in Santa Fe late yesterday afternoon, both of us feeling light and happy and eager. Jackson had intended to spend the weekend with Ronnie and then go to court on Monday in order to set a hearing on his petition to formally claim paternity and establish that he is Ronnie’s father in the eyes of the law. That plan, however, was sideswiped when local detectives met our plane, then informed Jackson that he was wanted back in Beverly Hills for questioning in Reed’s murder.
The afternoon shifted from a happy, laid-back reunion to a frantic flurry of activity, with calls between New Mexico and California, lawyers squabbling, deals churning.
At the end of it all, Jackson was permitted to stay the weekend, on condition that he go straight to the Beverly Hills Police Department Monday morning. In truth, Jackson could have garnered much more time—unless the police wanted to actually arrest, their leverage was limited—but his attorney wisely advised against it. After all, playing games isn’t the way to win either police cooperation or public opinion. And while we don’t yet know what physical evidence the police have collected, there’s no lack of motive for Jackson to have killed Reed.
The word sounds so clean compared to Reed, who was a dirty, horrible man.
Not only had he abused and tormented me when I was a teen, but he’d recently threatened to release some of the vile photographs that he’d taken of me back then if I didn’t convince Jackson to stop trying to block a movie that Reed wanted green-lit. A movie that would expose secrets and deceptions—and that would thrust Ronnie, an innocent child, into the middle of a very public, very messy scandal.
Did Jackson want the movie stopped? Hell, yes.
Did he want to protect me from the horror of seeing those pictures flashed across the internet? Damn right.
Did he want to punish Reed for the things he’d done to me so many years ago? Absolutely.
Did Jackson kill Reed?
As for that one—I truly don’t know.
More than that, I’m not allowed to ask. According to Charles Maynard, Jackson’s attorney, it is very likely that the police will interview me, too. And there is no privilege for girlfriends. Which means Charles wants me to be able to honestly say that Jackson was under strict orders from his attorneys, and that he didn’t say anything to me about whether he did or did not kill Reed. Not yes, not no, not maybe. Just nothing.
I know what that means, of course. Nothing is code for probably.
Nothing is code for that way you can’t later incriminate him.
Nothing is code for we’re trying to forestall the worst.
Just thinking about it makes me tremble, and I sit up, my back against the headboard and my pillow tight in my arms as I watch the man I love set the tray and the newspaper on the small table tucked in beneath the still-curtained window.
It’s a small task, but he performs it with confident precision, just as he does so much else in his life. Jackson is not a man to let circumstance get the better of him, and he is not a man who will let an injury go unavenged. He is a man who protects what he loves, and I know with unwavering certainty that the two things he loves most in this world are his daughter and me.
He would, I’m certain, kill to protect either of us, and that’s a thought that sends a little shiver of pleasure through me. But it’s tempered by fear and dread. Because Jackson would go even further; he’d sacrifice himself if he thought it would protect us. And I’m horribly afraid that’s exactly what he has done.
And, honestly, if Jackson ends up behind bars, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to bear the guilt.
He comes over to sit on the edge of the bed and is immediately assaulted by a three-year-old cyclone demanding to be tickled. He smiles and complies, then looks at me. But the smile doesn’t quite warm his ice blue eyes.
I reach for him and take his hand in mine. How many times in the hours since we arrived have I searched for the perfect words to soothe him? But there are no perfect words. I can only do my best. I can only just be here.
“Anything about you in there?” I ask with a nod to the paper that he’s left on the table.
“No, but since that’s the local Santa Fe paper I wouldn’t expect there to be.”
I frown. “Do you want me to look?” I’m not talking about the local paper, and he knows it. I’m offering to hop online and scope out the various gossip sites from back home, especially those that focus on Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and all things murder and celebrity.
He shakes his head, and his response only deepens my frown. He told me yesterday that he didn’t want anything to mar this time with Ronnie, and I get that. But we’ve already got the cloud of a murder hanging over us—and knowing the gossip means being prepared.
I argued as much last night, but I’m willing to make my case again. In fact, I’m opening my mouth to do just that when he presses his finger to my lips. “I looked this morning,” he says gently. “There’s nothing.”
“Really,” he confirms. He squeezes my hand, then holds out his free one for Ronnie. “I got on my tablet and looked while this little one was making toast. Didn’t I?” he asks, as she scrambles into his lap. “Didn’t I?” he repeats, then tickles her until she squeals and says, “Yes! Yes!” even though she clearly has no idea what we’re talking about.
“Your witness seems a little tainted to me.” I fight a smile. He’s such a natural dad, and the ease with which he’s slid into the role awes me a bit.
“Maybe. But the testimony is all true.” He kisses the top of her head, then pulls her close, the action so full of wild, heartbreaking emotion that it almost shatters me.
“You should go on outside with Grammy,” Jackson tells the little girl. “Fred’s probably wondering where you are.”
At the mention of the puppy, her blue eyes, so like Jackson’s, go wide. “You’ll come, too?”
“Absolutely,” he promises. “Let me talk to Syl while she drinks her coffee and then I’ll come find you.”
“And eat your toast?” she asks, her earnest question aimed at me.
“I can’t wait for the toast,” I say. “I bet it’s the best toast ever.”
“Yup,” she confirms, then shoots out of the room like a rocket.
Jackson watches her go, and I watch Jackson. When he turns back, he catches me eyeing him, then smiles sheepishly. “It’s hard to believe sometimes,” he says. “That she’s really mine, I mean.”
I think about the little girl’s dark hair and blue eyes. Her cleverness coupled with a vibrant personality and fierce determination. “Not hard to believe at all.”
I had hoped to coax a smile, but still he just looks sad.
“There was really nothing?”
“I promise.” I must look dubious, because he continues. “The police aren’t going to release names. Not until an arrest. Or until it drags on so long they feel like they need to get ahead of a leak.”
“And you know this because of your vast experience in the criminal underworld?”
“Years of watching television,” he corrects. “But you know I’m right.”
I nod. It makes sense. Plus, the police don’t yet know everything. As far as I’m aware, they know only about Jackson’s determination to block the movie. The blackmail and Ronnie’s existence remain hidden.
That, however, doesn’t lessen my fear. Because if—no, when—those come to light, it will look worse for Jackson.
“Are you okay?” I ask. It’s a stupid question, and it hangs there, as awkward and inadequate as I feel.
He shakes his head, just a little. “No,” he admits. He brushes his fingers lightly over my cheek, his attention on my face, his eyes searching mine. At first, he looks lost, but that soon changes as heat and need build in his eyes. Both are directed at me, and neither is a question. There is no permission to be granted, no request to be made. He simply slides his hand around to cup the back of my neck and pulls me toward him, then captures my mouth with his.
I open to him without hesitation, not just my lips, but my entire body. I am his, wholly and completely, and however he needs me.
He deepens the kiss, his tongue teasing and tasting. His mouth hot and desperate against mine.
We didn’t make love last night, too exhausted from both travel and the emotional whirlwind. Too wrapped up in seeing family and spending time with Ronnie.
And that is part of why I now expect more than the wildness of this kiss. I expect the crush of his hands upon my breasts. An explosion of breath as he pushes me back on the mattress, then rises to slam the door shut and flip the latch. The shift of the mattress as he returns, and the sound of ripping cotton as he strips me of my panties.
I anticipate the feel of his body over mine. Of my wrists bound tight by his T-shirt that I wear in lieu of pajamas after he yanks it over my head and uses it to constrain me.
I imagine the tightness in my inner thighs as he roughly spreads my legs, and the quick burn of friction as he enters me hard in one thrust and then loses himself to this wild passion that he needs. That he craves.
I expect all this because I know him. Because his world has spun out of control, and Jackson is a man who not only needs control, but who takes it. He is not a man to be swept up in the tide, battered by the rise and fall of circumstance. He fights back. He wins. He takes.
I channeled control into sex.
He’d told me that once. And he’s shown me as much many, many times.
And yet he doesn’t come to me. He doesn’t take. He doesn’t claim.
Fear slithers over me as he releases me, then stands. He doesn’t meet my eyes, but simply turns and moves from the bed to the window, then drags his fingers through his hair.
He doesn’t react. He simply stands there, his back to me, his shoulders slumped. And I am certain that he didn’t hear me, because how could he? Right then he is miles away, not just a few short feet across the bare wooden floor.
The table is in front of him. My coffee and toast are still there, untouched. He pushes the tray aside and opens the curtains, letting in the morning light.
We are in Betty Wiseman’s house, Ronnie’s maternal great-grandmother. The family is well-to-do, but this New Mexico home is a small getaway, a “mere” five thousand square feet. Jackson and I are in one of the guest rooms that overlook the back of the property. The view I’d seen yesterday evening was magnificent—the rocky, rising terrain of the mountains, dressed up in their fall colors. The verdant grasses and evergreens. The browns and reds of stones and foliage. And, of course, the vivid blue sky, so wide and resplendent that it seems to slide into and fill your soul.
But from where I still sit on the bed, stiff and awkward and just a little scared, I see only a small section of the covered patio and a view of the side of the house. I’m not at the proper angle to see the beautiful panorama that Jackson is looking at right now. Instead, our perspectives are entirely different, and that small reality eats at me.
I lick my lips, feeling distant and impotent and lost. And, yes, a little bit angry, too. Because, dammit, I don’t want to see him in pain, not if I can soothe him.
But that’s the heart of it, isn’t it? That’s really my greatest fear.
Not that I’m unable to soothe Jackson, but that he would rather bear this burden alone.
I toss the covers aside and walk to him, his T-shirt that I slept in brushing my thighs. I slide my arms around his waist from behind so that I am pressed against him, my cheek against his back. I breathe in the scent of him, male and musk and just the tiniest bit of fabric softener. It’s clean, maybe even a little bit domestic. But on Jackson, it’s also very, very sexy.
My hands are at his waist, and it would be so easy to slide them down. To stroke him and make him hard. To play and coax. To seduce and please.
To make him so hot and so hard that he wants nothing but me, can think of nothing but me. To tease him until he picks me up and throws me onto the bed in a violent explosion that not only consumes us both but destroys the shadows that have crept in between us, banishing them with fire and heat and light.
But even that’s not what I want. Not really. What I want—what I need—is for Jackson to come to me. To use me as he has in the past to soothe his wounds and make himself whole.
So instead of sliding my hand down to close around his cock, I simply hold still, clinging to this man who I love and need. And hoping against hope that he is not slipping away from me.
A moment passes, and then another. I hear the dog barking on the back lawn and the high-pitched squeal of Ronnie’s laughter followed by the lower tones of her great-grandmother and Stella, the housekeeper-turned-nanny.
Jackson is perfectly still, but then his hands rise to his waist to close over mine, so that as I hug him from behind, he is holding me in place. I close my eyes, relishing the strength of his touch. But then he very gently pulls my hands apart and steps out of the circle of my arms.
I hug myself tight against the loss of his warmth. But it’s no use. I am chilled to the bone. Lost, angry, afraid. And very, very alone.
He goes and sits on the edge of the bed, then scrubs his hands over his face. When he gazes up at me, he looks so tired that all of my anger and insecurity seems to spill out of me, and all I want to do is console him. I go to him, dropping to the ground in front of him and pressing my hands to his knees.
His smile, though tremulous, warms me, and when he gently brushes my cheek with his thumb, I almost weep with relief.
“Oh, hell,” he finally says. “I’m a fucking mess.”
“A bit,” I say, and am rewarded with just a hint of a smile. “But you’ll get through this. We’ll get through it.”
“All I wanted was to take my daughter home.”
His words seem to twist inside me, as if they are just slightly off-kilter. It takes me a moment to realize why. “Wanted?” I repeat.
“I called Amy first thing this morning.” His voice is flat and emotionless, as if he is working very hard to keep it that way.
“Oh.” Amy Brantley is his family law attorney in Santa Fe. She’s the one who filed his petition to establish paternity and parental rights. And although I have yet to meet her in person, I know that she’s the one who will be setting the hearing on that petition as soon as possible. “So what did she say? When are you setting a court date?”
I see a shadow in his eyes. “We’re not. We’re going to wait.”
“Wait? But…” I try to gather my thoughts even as I realize that I should have expected this. Because I know what this means. This means he doesn’t think he’ll be around to take care of her.
“Oh, god, Jackson.” I don’t mean for it to, but my voice is full of dread and fear.
“No,” he says, then repeats it more firmly. “No. I’m not giving in. I’m not folding. Not even close. But I’m also not taking risks with my little girl. What if the worst were to happen and I end up in a jail cell? Megan may be her legal guardian right now, but she won’t be once my rights are established. Would a California court send Ronnie back to New Mexico? To Megan? A former guardian with a host of mental health issues who’s checked herself into a center while she tries to get better? Or to Betty, an elderly great-grandmother? Maybe. But more likely she’ll end up in foster care. I can’t risk that. I won’t risk that.”
I want to protest. To point out how much this means to him. To beg him to believe that he’ll get through this. But I fear that saying those words will only highlight the extent of his loss. So all I say is, “I’m sorry.”
I want to slide into his embrace and hold him close. I want to lose myself in him. I want to breathe in his scent and let the feel of him erase all my fears.
But he is not reaching for me, and I can’t bring myself to move through this dark cloud and into his arms, because what if he pushes me away?
Instead, I do the opposite. I stand, then force a smile. “All right, then. So what’s the plan? You have to be in Beverly Hills in the morning, right? So what time are we leaving here?”
He looks almost relieved at the shift in conversation. “This afternoon. I want some face time with Charles and the new attorney before I walk into the lions’ den tomorrow,” he says, referring to Charles Maynard, his attorney back home, as well as the kick-ass criminal defense attorney that Charles has promised to retain.
“Have you told Grayson and Darryl?” I ask. Grayson Leeds is the head pilot for the Stark International fleet, and when Damien offered Jackson the use of one of the smaller jets, he also offered Grayson’s services as pilot, with Darryl, a new hire, coming on as co-pilot. Originally, the men were simply going to make the two-hour flight, drop us in New Mexico, and then return to California. But when the police showed up with the news that Jackson needed to return to Beverly Hills for questioning, Grayson and Darryl stayed. Now, they’re holed up in two of the guest rooms after having enjoyed a night of the Wisemans’ hospitality.
“I just told them,” Jackson says. “They’ll be ready when we are. I’m shooting to get out of here right after lunch.”
“Then this room isn’t where you need to be.” I glance toward the window, then offer him my hand and tug him to his feet. “Go spend some time with your daughter, Jackson Steele.” I reach up and stroke his cheek, his beard stubble scratchy against my hand. “Just a bit today, but that’s okay. You’ll be spending a lot more time with her very soon.”
For a moment, I think he’s going to argue. Then he nods. “Are you coming?”
“I’m going to shower first and get dressed. And,” I add, picking up the now-cold toast, “I can’t go out there until I’ve eaten the best toast ever.”
He actually laughs a bit, and I’m proud of my rather lame joke.
I watch him go, then shut the door behind him before returning to the window and waiting for him to appear on the lawn. It takes a few minutes, but he finally shows, and as I watch, he calls to Ronnie. Both she and the puppy lope toward him, and he scoops her up and swings her around, his expression glowing.
My heart twists. Because I know that his happiness will be fleeting. And I fear it will get worse before it gets better.
More than that, I fear that it won’t get better at all.
My phone starts to ring just as I’m stepping out of the shower. I don’t recognize the number, and I almost let it roll to voice mail, but then go ahead and answer it, just in case it’s my best friend, Cass, calling from a friend’s line, or Charles calling from another attorney’s office. Or even my boss, Damien Stark, calling from a hotel with Nikki after a spur-of-the-moment getaway.
Of course it’s none of those people.
Instead, the voice on the other end of the line belongs to my father.
“Sylvia. Honey, we need to talk.”
I cringe, his use of the endearment grating on me as much as his tone. Like he cares. Like he actually gives a shit about me.
I know better.
I know he’s only calling me because Jackson forced my dad to confront a truth that he’d avoided since I was fourteen—that Robert Cabot Reed had sucked the marrow out of me, and my father had handed me to the bastard on a platter and then looked the other way.
“Sylvia,” he prompts. “Sylvia, talk to me.”
“This isn’t a good time.” My voice is tight, and I can barely squeeze the words out.
“I’ve left at least a dozen messages. You haven’t called me back.”
“And so you thought you would trick me by calling from an unfamiliar number?”
“What choice do I have? I need to talk to you.”
“You need?” The words hang in the air, dark and twisted. Two simple syllables, and yet they seem to sum up my entire, horrible childhood.
“We need,” he corrects immediately. “We need to talk. About Reed. About what happened. About those photographs he threatened you with.”
“I can’t.” I’m shaking my head, wishing I could block out everything he is saying. Trying to push back the memories he is invoking. But it’s no use. The floor is shifting beneath me, and I reach for the counter to steady myself.
“You can’t keep ignoring me.”
Yes. I can. But I can’t manage the words. Not then. Not with the way my throat is closing up and the room is turning gray and the floor is starting to angle sideways, as if to let those horrible memories roll more easily toward me.
“We have to talk, Sylvia. We have to.” His voice sounds miles away, as if it is just a noise and has nothing to do with me. And I don’t want to hear it anymore.
I can’t. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
I’m not sure if I’m actually speaking those words or if I’m just screaming them in my head. Somehow, though, I manage to jam my finger hard against the proper button to end the call before the phone tumbles from my hand. My knees give out, and suddenly I’m on the ground, my legs pulled right up against my chest. I close my eyes and squeeze them tight and rock back and forth as I fight the panic and the memories that are rising fast to consume me.
I hate this—the terror. This sense of being lost. Of being out of control.
Of being thrust back into pain and memories without any warning at all.
If I’d known it was him, I could have prepared. Could have steeled myself.
Could you? Would you? Or would you have just hid from his words? From his voice?
My chest is tight with the weight of the truth. Because I would have hid. If I had my way, I’d hide from my father for the rest of eternity.
I take deep breaths and I tell myself to get a grip. He’s gone. It’s over. And I can handle this.
More than that, I have to handle this.
It hasn’t yet been a week since Jackson told my father what Robert Cabot Reed did to me. Not that my dad didn’t already have some idea. He was the one who’d set me up with Reed as a teen, after all. Who’d accepted exorbitant amounts of money from Reed in exchange for my services, supposedly as a model, but that damn sure wasn’t the extent of it.
And it was my father who’d ignored my pleas to stop the photo sessions.
So, yeah, my dad knew what went on in Reed’s studio, but he’d never really faced it. Not until Jackson forced him to not only acknowledge the past, but to look at the present. A present in which Reed was blackmailing me, threatening to release those horrible, ugly, intimate photos to the press if I didn’t convince Jackson to quit blocking his movie.
Since that night, my father has repeatedly called me, and I’ve repeatedly ignored him. And that’s not going to stop now. As far as I’m concerned, that man stopped being my father when he drove me to Reed’s studio the first time. And if he’s calling to apologize, I really don’t give a damn. And if he’s calling to ask for forgiveness, that’s not something I’m willing to grant.
I shake out my arms, then slap my cheeks lightly as if I’m a trauma victim who needs to be revived. Because when you get right down to it, that’s exactly what I am.
I have to get my shit together, because I cannot, cannot, cannot let Jackson see me like this. Not because I’m afraid that he won’t comfort me, but because I am certain that he will. He might be pushing me away from his problems and fears, but he won’t ignore mine. On the contrary, my pain would slide in and mingle with his own, and I can’t put this on him. Not now. Not today.
But even though I know that keeping silent about this call is absolutely the right decision, I can’t help but feel as if my silence is the first step on a dark path leading me away from Jackson. And if I don’t fight to keep him by my side, I’m going to lose him to the shadows.