He’s the only man I’ve ever loved, and the one man I can’t bear to lose.
Jackson Steele 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.
Praise for Under My Skin
“Intense . . . blistering in its sensuality . . . Fans of [J.] Kenner’s sizzling and emotional Stark International trilogy will find plenty to savor in this finale, as her troubled and passionate protagonists battle to save each other from the darkness that threatens to tear them apart.”—RT Book Reviews
“Red-hot and angsty . . . Kenner keeps readers guessing about who was responsible for Reed’s death until the very end, punctuating the story with hot and explicit sex scenes, questions about who’s trying to destroy the resort project that could make Sylvia’s career, and a red herring or two.”—Publishers Weekly
“Kenner does a wonderful job of displaying both Jackson’s and Sylvia’s secrets, pains, insecurities and the mechanisms they use when the stress is overwhelming. . . . A great series about determination, strong personalities, perseverance and standing strong under adversity. . . . A wonderful read!”—Fresh Fiction
“This trilogy has everything readers look for in a series. . . . It’s loaded with intrigue, mystery, conflict, and a powerful cast of supporting characters. At the same time it is a tender, beautiful romance between two people that have struggled with their pasts. . . . This book was intense, heartbreaking, emotional, and a page-turner.”—Smut Book Junkie
“Filled with all of the drama and seduction I have come to expect and love from J. Kenner, Under My Skin was a crazy-hot story that left me completely satisfied with our characters’ HEA.”—Harlequin Junkie
“Amazingly well written with detailed and complicated characters who are full of raw emotion, passion, and intensity . . . When Jackson and Sylvia are intimate, their passion is explosive and filled with wild desire. . . . The Stark International Trilogy is a must-read!”—About That Story
“This story has all the passion, love, heat, and nitty gritty, provocative sex you have come to love from the first two books.”—Itsy Bitsy Book Bits
“Kenner mixes a hot alpha man with a murder accusation, sabotage and sex so hot you’ll fall to your knees. . . . And throughout it all a thread of heat sizzles just underneath every single scene.”—Obsessed with Myshelf
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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?”