Here’s another glimpse at Nikki and Damien, from Release Me, coming January 1!!!
He’s poured himself a glass as well, and now he walks around the bar. I think he’s going to sit on the stool next to me, but he doesn’t. He simply leans against it, which means that he’s a few inches closer to me . . . and between Damien Stark and me, inches can be dangerous.
I tell myself it’s to quell my nerves and take another sip, then wait for Damien to say something else. He’s quiet, though, watching me. I begin to feel a bit self conscious under his unabashed inspection.
“You’re staring,” I finally say.
I look away. It’s not what I want to hear. “I’m not,” I say. “Or maybe I am. Does it matter?”
“Sometimes,” he says, which is the most honest answer I’ve ever heard to that particular question. “It matters to me.”
“Because I like looking at you. I like the way you hold your shoulders back. The way you walk as if the world is yours for the taking.”
I shake my head a little. “That’s just years of walking with a book on my head, and lectures from my mother, and endless etiquette classes.”
“It’s more than that. I like the way you wear your clothes, as if you understand that it’s you and not the cloth that matters. You are beautiful, Nikki, but it’s because of what you exude as much as it is the standard of beauty that we see in pageants and on magazine covers.”
“What if everything you see in me is a lie?”
“It’s not,” he says.
I take a slug of my bourbon. “Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are, Mr. Stark.”
“Nonsense. I’m fucking brilliant. Or haven’t you heard?” His grin is wide and boyish and I can’t help but laugh. And then, before I even have time to catch my breath, the boyish expression is gone, replaced with one of fire and need. He moves fast, and before I can blink he’s twisted my barstool so that my back is to the bar and he has a hand on either side of me. I’m caged in, trapped in Damien’s heat. “I am smart, Nikki,” he says. “I’m smart enough to know that you feel it, too. This isn’t just heat, it’s a goddamned conflagration. Not chemistry, but nuclear fission.”
I’m flush and breathing hard. He’s right—so help me, he’s right. But even so …
“There’s nothing good about an atomic reaction,” I say. “And the blast destroys everything it touches.”
“Bullshit.” The word comes out hard. He’s right in front of me, and I can feel the anger coming off of him in waves. “Goddammit, Nikki, don’t do that. Don’t play those kind of games with me. Don’t make this complicated when it should be so damn simple.”
“Should be?” I repeat. “What the hell does that mean? Nothing is simple. Am I attracted to you? Hell yes. But you don’t even know me.”
I stifle a sigh. Sometimes I wonder if I even know myself, or if all those years of being molded by my mother—being told what to eat, what to drink, who to date, when to sleep, and all the other Mommy Dearest bullshit—had sucked Nikki right out of me.
But no. No, I fought to keep the core of myself, even if I do keep it buried deep.
I look fiercely at him. “You don’t know me,” I repeat.
The intensity with which he looks back at me almost makes me stumble. “But I do.”
Something in his voice makes me feel exposed. He has me on edge again, and I look away, not liking the way he seems to be shining a spotlight on me.
It takes me a moment to gather myself, and when I do, I tilt my head just enough to look up at him. “We’re not taking this further, Mr. Stark. Absolutely not.”
“I don’t accept that.” His voice is a low growl that rumbles through me, weakening my resolve.
I don’t say a word. I can’t seem to form one.
“I liked it,” he continues, as he traces his fingertips down the sleeve of my jacket. “You liked it. I’m not seeing a sound basis for cessation, Ms. Fairchild.”
I force myself to make a coherent sound. “I like cheesecake, but I only have it rarely. And I know it’s bad for me.”
“Sometimes bad is good.”
“Bullshit. That’s what people say to alleviate their own guilt or justify their own weakness. Bad is bad. A is A.”
“I didn’t realize we were discussing philosophy. Shall I counter with the teachings of Aristippus? He held that pleasure is the highest good.” His fingertip traces my collarbone. “And I want to be very, very good with you.”
I shiver from his touch, allowing myself one brief moment to savor the pleasure of basking in the glow of Damien Stark. Then I turn away, so that I’m speaking to the air, but not to the man. “This isn’t going anywhere.” My voice is a whisper. My voice is the sound of regret. “It can’t.”
“Why not?” I hear the gentleness in his voice and wonder how much of myself I’ve inadvertently revealed.
I don’t say a word.
He exhales, and I can feel the frustration rolling off him in waves. “Ultimately, your free will is your own, Ms. Fairchild. As is mine.”
“I’m free to try to convince you otherwise.”