Stark Saga Book 4
It’s a new chapter in the life of Nikki and Damien Stark…
Though shadows still haunt us, and ghosts from our past continue to threaten our happiness, my life with Damien is nothing short of perfection. He is my heart and my soul. My past and my future. He is the man who holds me together, and his love fuels my days and enchants my nights.
But when tragedy and challenge from both inside and outside the sanctity of our marriage begin to chip away at our happiness, I am forced to realize that even a perfect life can begin to crack. And if Damien and I are going to win this new battle, it will take all of our strength and love…
Sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss a thing— Click Here!
Anchor Me is Story # 4 in the Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki series.
Anchor Me - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 04/11/2017 Story Type Book Primary Characters Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Damien Stark Secondary Characters Jackson Steele Eleanor "Sylvia" Brooks Jamie Archer Ryan Hunter Series Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki Place in Series Story #4 Genre Contemporary Romance
I look out the window at the beautifully manicured yards that line the wide street down which I am traveling in the sumptuous luxury of a classic Rolls Royce Phantom. A car so sleek and magical that I can’t help but feel like a princess in a royal coach.
The road is shaded by parallel rows of massive oaks, their branches arcing over the street toward their counterparts to form a leafy canopy. Morning light fights its way between the leaves, creating golden beams in which dust sparkles and dances as if to a celebratory melody, adding to the illusion that we are moving through a fairy tale world.
All in all, it’s a picture-perfect moment.
Except it’s not. Not really. Or at least not to me.
Because as far as I’m concerned, this is no children’s story.
This is Dallas. This is the neighborhood where I grew up. And that means that this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a nightmare.
The branches aren’t stunning—they’re grasping. Reaching out to snare me. To hold me tight. To trap me.
The canopy doesn’t mark a royal corridor leading to a castle. It leads to a cell. And it’s not The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies that fills the air. It is a requiem for the dead.
The world outside the car is lined with traps, and if I’m not careful, I’ll be sucked in. Destroyed by the darkness that hides behind the false facades of these stately houses. Surrounded not by a bright children’s tale, but by a horror movie, lured in by the promise of beauty and then trapped forever and slowly destroyed, ripped to pieces by the monsters in the dark.
Breathe, I tell myself. You can do this. You just have to remember to breathe.
Damien’s voice startles me back to reality, and I jerk upright, calling upon perfect posture to ward off the ghosts of my memories.
His tone is soft, profoundly gentle, but when I glance toward him, I see that his eyes have dipped to my lap.
For a moment, I’m confused, then I realize that I’ve inched up my skirt, and my fingertip is slowly tracing the violent scar that mars my inner thigh. A souvenir of the deep, ugly wound that I inflicted upon myself a decade ago when I was desperate to find a way to release all the pent-up anger and fear and pain that swirled inside me like a phalanx of demons.
I yank my hand away, then turn to look out the window, feeling oddly, stupidly ashamed.
He says nothing, but the car moves to the curb and then rolls to a stop. A moment later, Damien’s fingers twine with mine. I hold tight, drawing strength, and when I shift to look at him more directly, I see worry etched in the hard angles of that perfect face and reflected in those exceptional, dual-colored eyes.
Worry, yes. But it is the rest of what I see that takes my breath away. Understanding. Support. Respect.
Most of all, I see a love so fierce it has the power to melt me, and I revel in its power to soothe.
He is the biggest miracle of my life, and there are moments when I still can’t believe that he is mine.
Damien Stark. My husband, my lover, my best friend. A man who commands an empire with a firm, controlling hand. Who takes orders from no one, and yet today is playing chauffeur so that he can stand beside me while I confront my past.
For a moment, I simply soak him in. His strength, apparent in both his commanding manner and the long, lean lines of his athletic body. His support, reflected in those eyes that see me so intimately. That have, over the years, learned all my secrets.
Damien knows every scar on my body, as well as the story behind each. He knows the depth of my pain, and he knows how far I have come. How far his love has helped me come.
Most of all, he knows what it has cost me to return to Texas. To drive these streets. To look out at this neighborhood so full of pain and dark memories.
With a small shiver, I pull my hand free so that I can hug myself.
“Oh, baby.” The concern in his voice is so thick I can almost grab hold of it. “Nikki, you don’t have to do this.”
“I do.” My words sound ragged, my throat too clogged with unshed tears to speak normally.
I wait, expecting him to continue, but he’s gone silent. I see the tension on his face, as if he’s uncertain what to say or how to say it—but Damien Stark is never unsure. Not about business. Not about himself. Not about me.
And yet right now he’s hesitating. Treating me like I’m something fragile and breakable.
An unexpected shock of anger cuts through me. Not at him, but at myself. Because, dammit, he’s right. In this moment, I’m as fragile as I’ve ever been, and that’s not a pleasant realization. I’ve fought so hard to be strong, and with Damien at my side, I’ve succeeded.
But here I am, all my hard work shot to hell simply because I’ve returned to my hometown.
“You think coming here is a mistake.” I snap the words at him, but it’s not Damien I’m irritated with, it’s me.
“No.” He doesn’t hesitate, and I take some comfort in the speed and certainty of his response. “But I do wonder if now is the right time. Maybe tomorrow would be better. After your meetings.”
We’ve come to Texas not so that I can torture myself by driving through my old neighborhood to visit my estranged mother, but because I’m vying to land a contract with one of the top web development companies in the country. It’s looking to roll out a series of apps, both for internal use among its employees and externally for its clients.
I’d submitted a proposal and am now one of only five companies invited to come to Dallas to pitch, and my little company is by far the smallest and the newest. I suspect, of course, that part of the reason I got the invitation is because I’m married to Damien Stark, and because my company has already licensed software to Stark International.
A year ago, that would have bothered me.
Not anymore. I’m damn good at what I do, and if my last name gets me a foot in the door, then so be it. I don’t care how the opportunity comes because I know that my work is top-notch, and if I get the job, it will be on the merits of my proposal and my presentation.
It’s a huge opportunity, and one I don’t want to screw up. Especially since my goal for the next eighteen months is to build up my receivables, hire five employees, and take over the full floor of the building that houses my office condo.
I’d worked on my business plan for months, and was a complete nervous wreck the night I handed it to my master of the universe, brilliantly entrepreneurial husband for review. When he’d given it the Damien Stark seal of approval, I practically collapsed with relief. My plan to grow my business doesn’t hinge on me getting this job—but landing it will mean I can bump all my target dates up by six months. More importantly, winning this contract will put my business firmly on the competitive map.
My shoulders sag a bit as I meet his eyes. “You’re afraid that seeing Mother is going to throw me off my game. That I’ll flub tomorrow’s meetings and hurt my chances of landing the contract.”
“I want you at your best.”
“I know you do,” I say sincerely, because Damien has never been anything but supportive. “Don’t you get it? That’s why we’re here. It’s like a preemptive strike.”
His brow furrows, but before he can ask what I mean, I rush to explain. “Just being in Dallas messes with my head—we both know that. She haunts this town. And having you here with me now makes it so much better. But you can’t always be with me, and before I make my pitch, I need to be certain that I can travel back and forth between LA and Dallas without being afraid I’ll see her around every corner.”
The pathetic truth is that lately I’ve been seeing my mother around all sorts of corners. I’ve imagined seeing her in Beverly Hills shopping centers. On Malibu beaches. In crowded streets. At charity events. I have no idea why this woman I’ve worked so hard to block from my mind is suddenly at the forefront of my imagination, but she is.
And I really don’t want her there.
I draw a breath, hoping he understands. “I need to lay all these demons to rest and just do my work. Please,” I add, my voice imploring. “Please tell me you understand.”
“I do,” he says, then takes my hand and gently kisses my fingertips. As he does, his phone rings. It’s sitting on the console, and I can see that the caller is his attorney, Charles Maynard.
“Don’t you need to take it?” I ask, as he scowls, then declines the call.
“It can wait.”
There’s a hard edge to his voice, and I wonder what he’s not telling me. Not that Damien keeps me informed about every aspect of his business—considering he pretty much owns and operates the entire planet and a few distant solar systems, that would require far too many updates—but he does tend to keep me in the loop on things that are troubling him.
I frown. It’s clear that he’s not telling me because I already have plenty on my mind. And while I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t like that—once again—my mother has come between my husband and me.
“You should call him back,” I say. “If he’s calling on a Sunday, it must be important . . .”
I let the words trail away, hoping to give him an opening, but all he does is shake his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, even as his phone signals an incoming text.
He snatches it up, but not before I see Charles’s name flash on the lock screen again, this time with a single word: Urgent.
Damien meets my eyes, and for just a moment his frustration is almost comical. Then he snatches up the phone and hits the button to call Charles. A second later, he’s saying, “Dammit, I told you I can’t be bothered with this right now.”
He listens to the response, the furrows in his brow growing deeper. Finally, he sighs, looking more frustrated than I’ve seen him in a long time.
Cold foreboding washes over me. Damien isn’t the kind of man who gets frustrated over business deals. On the contrary, the harder and more challenging the deal, the more he thrives.
Which means this is personal.
“I hear you, Charles, but I’m not paying you for your advice on this. I’m paying you for those resources you’re so keen on touting. So use them, dammit. Pull out all the stops and get me some answers by the time I’m back in LA. Fine,” he adds after another pause. “Call me if you have something definitive. Otherwise I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
He ends the call and slams the phone back down. I open my mouth, intending to ask him what’s happening, but before I get the chance, he pulls me roughly to him and closes his mouth over mine. The kiss is hard, brutal, and I slide closer, losing myself in the wildness. And for this moment at least, I forget my apprehension and his problems. There is nothing but us, our passion a raging blaze that clears away the debris of our lives, stripping us to the bone until there is nothing left but the two of us.
I’m breathing hard when we break apart, my lips bruised and tingling, my body burning. I want to turn around and go back to the hotel. I want to strip off my clothes and feel his hands on me, his cock inside me. I want it wild. Raw. Pain and pleasure so intense I get lost in them. Passion so violent it breaks me. And Damien—always Damien—right there to put me back together again.
I want, but I can’t have. Not yet. Because whatever else is going on, I’ve come to this neighborhood with a purpose, and if I back away now, I may not have the strength to return.
And so, as Damien holds me close, I press my cheek against his shoulder and sigh, letting the moment linger. Then I tilt my head up to see his face. Damien doesn’t keep secrets from me—not anymore—and I expect him to tell me what the phone call was about. But he says nothing, and my stomach twists miserably. Because I understand Damien well enough to know that the only reason he’d hold back is to protect me. And right now, he’s doing his damnedest to shield me from the emotional hell of this trip.
He twines his hand with mine, then kisses our joined fingers. “I’m sorry. This is our time. Your time. I wouldn’t have called back, except—”
“I get it. Really.” And I do. I understand why he returned the call. And I understand that this apology is his way of telling me that he’s not saying a word about it. Not now. Not until we’ve seen my mother.
“We should get going,” I say.
For a moment, he holds my gaze, trying to measure whether I’m truly game-ready. Then he nods and glances down at the phone. “Are you sure you don’t want to call her first?”
“No. Let’s just go.” What I don’t say—but I’m sure Damien understands—is that there’s a certain amount of appeal in the element of surprise. For once, maybe I’ll have the upper hand. And the fact that Damien will be standing on her threshold with me is a bonus. I flash a small but very genuine grin. “I think you intimidate her,” I say.
“Me?” His smile is wide and boyish. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Mmm,” I say. “Okay, onward.” I gesture regally, indicating he should pull back onto the road. He’d stopped in front of one of the stately homes just a few blocks away from Highland Park Village—one of the ritzier shopping areas in the country, and a place with which I’m very familiar. I’m pretty sure my mother bought everything from designer diapers to ball gowns for both my sister Ashley and me in the center’s boutiques.
But despite the society page sheen of this Dallas enclave, a Phantom stands out. Especially this fully restored beauty.
“The neighbors are jealous,” I say, nodding toward two women openly gawking at the car as they jog. “They’re wondering who’s moving into the neighborhood with more money than they have.”
Damien brushes off the comment. “It’s not the price that intrigues them,” he says. “It’s the beauty. The craftsmanship. The restoration. This is a neighborhood that thrives on appearances,” he adds, nodding to his right and the line of elegant homes we are passing. Then he glances to his left, his eyes roaming slowly over me. “And this car—and the woman in it—are two things of pure beauty.”
My cheeks warm. “I’ll agree with you on the car,” I say modestly, though I can’t deny that the compliment pleases me. “But I think they’re mostly fascinated with the man behind the wheel—and the fact that he’s on the right side.”
Usually when we’re in a limo, Damien’s personal driver, Edward, acts as chauffeur. But Edward’s not with us on this trip, and even if he were, I know Damien would insist on driving his new toy.
It’s odd being a passenger on the driver’s side, but this 1967 Phantom V limo is as British as they come, having once been a formal royal family touring limousine.
No wonder I feel like a fairy tale princess.
We’d come to Dallas for my work, but when Damien had learned about the trip, he’d made an appointment to see a retired aerospace engineer he’d once met at a classic car show whose hobby-turned-second-career is restoring Bentleys and Rolls Royces to mint condition. We’d gone straight to his home in North Dallas after arriving, and Damien had spent two hours in a state of bliss talking about this Phantom.
“How much?” Damien had asked, after he’d inspected the limo thoroughly, commenting on the brilliant design and mechanical prowess with the kind of rapture that most people use when talking about movie stars. I couldn’t deny that he was right about the car’s beauty and uniqueness. It’s painted a typical black, but the sheen is such that every angle and curve is set off to perfect advantage. And the interior is as elegant as a palace, the wood carved and polished to perfection, the leather seats soft and supple. The car is rare, too. Apparently, only five hundred and sixteen of this particular model were made.
The engineer quoted a six-figure price, and Damien pulled out his checkbook without the slightest hesitation. Less than an hour later, we were driving down the North Dallas Tollway in the latest addition to Damien’s vehicular menagerie, and Damien’s giddy expression reminded me of a little boy on Christmas morning.
Now, he maneuvers the limo through Highland Park, the well-heeled neighborhood in which I grew up. Though my family’s net worth never came close to Damien’s, we were hardly scraping by. My grandfather had made a fortune in oil, and though much of that was lost in the recession—and later by my mother’s bad management—there’s no denying that I was a child of privilege, just like every other kid living in these massive, tony mansions.
I’d walked away from all that when I moved to Los Angeles, intent on escaping my past. I’d wanted a new life, a new Nikki. And I’d been determined to make it on my own without my mother’s baggage holding me down.
Now, I can’t help but smile as I look at Damien. At this car that cost more than most people earn in a year. It’s funny how things shift. I was wealthy in Dallas, but miserable. Now, I’m filthy rich in Los Angeles and happier than I could ever have imagined. Not because of the bank account, but because of the man.
“You’re smiling,” he says, sounding pleased, and I’m once again struck by the fact that he is as much on pins and needles as I am. Damien, however, isn’t worried about seeing my mother. Damien is worried about me.
“I was just thinking how happy I am,” I admit, and then tell him why.
“Because the money isn’t the heart of what we are to each other,” he says. “You’d love me even if I were destitute.”
“I would,” I admit, then flash an impish smile. “But I can’t deny that I like the perks.” I run my hand over the dashboard. “Of course, I’d like this particular perk better if Edward were here.”
“Not satisfied with just holding my hand, Mrs. Stark?”
“I’m fine with hand holding for now,” I say archly. “But later, I want more. Later, I want your hands on all of me.”
The glance he shoots me overflows with heat and promise. “I think that can be arranged.”
“Eyes on the road, driver,” I say, then point. “And turn here.”
He does, and immediately my mood downshifts. Because now we’re on my actual street. Now, we’re a few blocks away from my childhood home.
I draw a breath. “Almost there. And I’m fine,” I add before he has a chance to ask. I’m not fine—not entirely—but I’m hoping that by saying it, I’ll banish the hideous aching in my gut and the nausea that is starting to rise up inside me.
“Just tell me when.”
I nod, and for a moment, I picture us driving past, just going on and on until we’re out of the neighborhood, back in Dallas proper, and far, far away from the memories that are now washing over me like wave after wave crashing onto a sandy shore. Me locked in a pitch-black room because little girls need their beauty sleep, and Ashley whispering to me through the closed door, promising me that nothing is lurking in the dark to hurt me. A stylist tugging and pulling on my long, golden hair, ignoring my tears and cries of pain as my mother stands by, telling me to control myself. That I’m embarrassing her. My mother gripping my arm as she tugs me up the walkway to register for my first pageant, my eyes still red from the sting of her hand on my kindergarten-age bottom, a reminder that beauty queens don’t complain and whine.
I think of a dinner plate with the tiniest portion of plain chicken and steamed vegetables while my mother and sister eat cheesy lasagna, and my mother telling me that if I want to be a pageant winner, I need to watch every calorie and think of carbohydrates as the devil. Then her mouth pursing in disapproval when I insist that I don’t care about being a pageant winner. That I just want to not be hungry.
I was never good enough. Too chunky, too slouchy, too lackluster. Even with an array of crowns and titles, I never met her expectations, and I don’t remember a time when she ever felt like mother or friend. Instead, she was the strict governess of stories. The wicked stepmother. The witch in the gingerbread house.
My older sister Ashley escaped her clutches by the simple act of not winning the pageants she entered. After several failures, my mother gave up. And though I tried to fail, too, I was cursed with crowns and titles.
For years, I’d thought that Ashley had the better end of the deal. It was only when she later killed herself after her husband left her, that I understood how deep Ashley’s scars had run. Mine were physical, the self-inflicted scars of a girl who took a blade to her own skin, first to release the pressure and gain some control, then later to mar those pageant-perfect legs and end the madness of that horrific roller-coaster.
Ashley’s wounds were under the surface, but still deep. And at the core, both mine and my sister’s scars were inflicted by our mother.
My heart races, and I force myself to breathe steadily. To calm down. We’re almost there, and if I’m going to see my mother, I need to be in control. Show even the slightest weakness, and she’ll pounce on it.
And, yes, I’ve grabbed the upper hand before—I sent her back to Texas after she tried to take over planning my wedding, ignoring what I wanted in favor of her own skewed vision—but in Dallas she definitely has the home-court advantage.
“Nine-three-seven?” Damien asks, referring to the address, and I nod.
“The first house on the left after the bend,” I say, and I’m proud of how normal my voice sounds. I can do this. More than that, I want to do it. Clear the air. Wash away all the cobwebs.
Basically, I’m doing the parental equivalent of burning sage in a house tainted with bad memories.
The thought amuses me, and I’m about to tell Damien when the car rounds the bend and my humor fades.
Moments later, my childhood home comes into view. But it’s not my mother’s Cadillac parked in the drive. Instead, I’m staring at two unfamiliar Land Rovers, a Mercedes convertible, and a moving van.
So where the hell is my mother?