a Stark Ever After Novella
From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J. Kenner comes a new story in her Stark Ever After series…
My life with Damien has always been magical, and never more so than during the holidays, a time for us to celebrate the hardships we’ve overcome and the incredible gift that is our family. Over the years, he has both protected and cherished me. He has made my life more rich and full than I could ever have imagined.
This year, he’s treating me and our daughters to a holiday in Manhattan. With parades and ice skating, toy displays and candies. And, most of all, with each other.
It’s a wonderful gift, a trip I will always cherish. But this year, I’m the one with the surprise. And I can’t wait to see the look of delight and awe when I finally share my secret with Damien.
But I’m terrified that when danger strikes, it will take a holiday miracle for me to even get the chance.
**Every 1001 Dark Nights novella is a standalone story. For new readers, it’s an introduction to an author’s world. And for fans, it’s a bonus book in the author’s series. We hope you’ll enjoy each one as much as we do.**
Cherish Me is Story # 6.3 in the Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki series.
Cherish Me - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 11/03/2020 Story Type Novella Primary Characters Damien Stark Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Series Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki Place in Series Story #6.3 Genre Contemporary Romance
“Mommy! Daddy! Watch this! Watch this!”
I turn just in time to see Lara, my oldest, grab her little sister’s hands. Both girls lean back, their eyes to the sky as they spin and spin and spin until finally, they let go and tumble into a dizzy heap on the play mat next to Dallas and Jane Sykes’ massive swimming pool.
“Very nice,” Damien says, shooting me a sideways grin as he squeezes my hand. It’s four-thirty, and the setting sun casts a golden haze over the yard, making Damien’s raven-black hair gleam.
“Can I spin and then jump in the pool?” Lara asks. “Pretty please?” She’s five now, and convinced that she can do anything and everything without repercussions. Sometimes I think that might be true. She’s Daddy’s little girl, after all.
“No, you can’t,” I say, adjusting my blanket. I’m stretched out on a comfy outdoor sofa, my legs curled up so that my feet are just brushing Damien’s thighs. Normally, he’d be resting one hand on my leg, but today he’s cradling Mystery, Dallas and Jane’s baby daughter, who’s cooing sleepily in his arms.
“Lara…” I put on my stern Mommy voice. “The pool is too cold, and you don’t want to be sick for the rest of our trip, do you?”
“We won’t get sick,” Lara says. “I’m healthy as a horse. Grandpa said so.”
I stifle a laugh, remembering the last time my father had hoisted Lara to his shoulders and said that exact thing.
“Please,” Anne chimes in. At three, she happily follows her sister’s lead. “Daddy, we wanna swim dizzy.”
“Swim dizzy?” Jane asks as she returns to the pool deck with a tray of drinks. Her long, brown hair is pulled back into a messy ponytail, but a few strands curl around her face. “We’ve got regular cider for the kids and wine or bourbon for the grownups. Dallas’ll be out in a few with some snacks. Until then, I’m dying to know what your kids are talking about.”
She sets the tray down on the table in front of the sofa, meets my eyes, and passes me a wine glass sitting atop a napkin. I give her a quick, shared smile as Damien starts to explain.
“Laura discovered the joys of getting dizzy, then jumping into the pool with her eyes closed this summer.” His smile reaches his dual-colored eyes, the corners crinkling in a way that I find wonderfully sexy. “I tried it, too, and I have to say she has a point.”
I shake my head in mock exasperation, but I do understand the appeal. The sensation of being totally helpless and disoriented. The thrill of conquering all of that as you get your bearings, and the world rights itself again.
I’d been nervous when Lara first discovered this new “game,” but the kid is part fish. More than that, she follows the rules we’ve set for our pool back in Malibu. Only one dizzy swim per outing. And never, ever in the pool without an adult. Not that they could get through the child protective locks that guard the now-fenced pool area. Or, for that matter, the various alarms, cameras, and other security alert systems that Damien has installed. Some of which are newly patented designs conceived by Damien post-fatherhood and now being produced and marketed under the Stark Applied Technology umbrella.
Whatever it takes to keep our girls safe.
“I’ll have to try that,” Jane says, sliding into one of the chairs opposite me and Damien. “I didn’t even think about heating the pool for the girls. Today would have been a great day for it.”
We’ve come to New York for the Christmas holidays, and although we’re moving on to the city tomorrow, we’re spending tonight here with our friends at their incredible Southampton mansion on the street known by the media as Billionaire’s Row.
This particular home is often described as the icing on the Meadow Lane cake. Once, it had been notorious as the home of The King of Fuck, the billionaire playboy. But Dallas Sykes, who had encouraged that nickname for reasons of his own, is a man who’d lived a hidden life. A serious man behind the disguise of a lazy heir content to plow through a seemingly never-ending supply of dollars.
I once thought I’d grown up wealthy in my fine Texas neighborhood, but after I met Damien, I’d learned what the word really meant. I’ve become acclimated to the kinds of homes that fill the pages of magazines. But even to my now-acclimated vision, the Sykes’ mansion shines bright.
Originally their childhood home, it now belongs to Jane and Dallas as husband and wife. An admittedly odd situation, considering they grew up as siblings, and one that the press had been all over a few years ago. But it makes sense, and I couldn’t be happier for the two of them. Especially since I couldn’t imagine Dallas or Jane without the other anymore than I could imagine me without Damien.
We arrived just before lunch, and this day and tomorrow morning are all about relaxing and catching up. Tomorrow, we’re leaving the girls with Dallas and Jane, then heading into the city for one night of kid-free alone time. It’s the part of the trip that I’ve taken full charge of—finding the hotel, setting up reservations under a fake name so that we will be totally anonymous, buying the lingerie I intend to wear—or not—when we’re alone.
Damien’s fully in on that aspect of the itinerary. What he doesn’t know is that I have a special gift that I plan to give him during our dinner tomorrow before we head back to the room.
I watch as he adjusts Mystery’s blanket, then sigh as a wave of tenderness sweeps over me, as gentle as a spring breeze. He looks up and meets my eyes, sending nerves to flutter in my belly. Not worry, but anticipation. Because I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he unwraps the package I’ve tucked away in my overnight bag.
His eyes dip to the baby. “Not that long ago,” he says to me. “But it feels like forever.”
“I remember when you first held Anne in the hospital.” My words are thick with emotion. “And how you cuddled Lara on the plane back from China.”
I swallow a sigh, my gaze lingering on Damien and the baby. There’s no doubt that my husband oozes sex appeal. The whole world has known it for years. Handsome. Powerful. Confident. But it’s moments like this that truly make my heart turn over.
I blink, fighting a hormonal battle to get my emotions under control.
“Thank God we took lots of pictures when the girls were smaller,” Damien says, breaking the spell as a laugh bursts out of me.
“Yeah,” I agree, trying to blink back a wave of tears. I swipe at my cheek, then roll my eyes at Jane, whose grin rivals the glow of the sunset. “Your little girl is making me emotional.”
“Babies will do that,” she says, then leans over the table to reach out for Lisa Mystery Sykes’ tiny hand. “Especially ones as cute as you, precious girl.”
“Oh, good,” Dallas says, striding from the house to where we’re seated. “I see Mystery’s done her job and wrapped you around her little finger.”
“Wasn’t hard,” Damien says. “She’s adorable.”
Dallas looks about as proud as a man can get. Tall and lean, most people would say he’s at least as handsome as Damien. Not me, of course. But looking objectively at that model-quality face with striking green eyes, I can’t fault anyone else for saying so.
Like Jane, he’s come bearing a tray, and now he calls to our girls, who rush over for the chocolate chip cookies that artfully surround a cluster of cannolis. “You’re spoiling us,” I say. “Them, too.”
“Hell, yes,” he admits. “How better to make you come back? We have the room, and we don’t see you guys nearly enough. The downside of having a continent between us.”
“In case it’s not clear,” Jane adds as Dallas settles into the chair next to hers, then reaches automatically for her hand, “we’re thrilled you’re here, even if it’s only for the night.”
“We’re thrilled that you’re having us,” I counter. “Especially that you’re helping out with the girls.”
The plan is that Damien and I will head into Manhattan tomorrow. After our overnight extravaganza, Dallas and Jane will bring the girls into the city and meet us at the Manhattan Stark Century Hotel for dinner and the child handoff.
Then Damien and the girls and I will spend a few glorious days lounging in the penthouse suite, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, and eating chestnuts from street vendors. Plus an Eloise tea at the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel for me and Lara while Damien takes Anne to the huge toy and candy stores in Times Square.
We’d hoped that the girls would see snow sometime during the trip, if not on Christmas Day itself, but this year is unseasonably warm, with highs reaching all the way into the low fifties. Today in Southampton, the thermometer hit fifty-six and only now is the temperature starting to dip. Which means that Jane was right. It would have been a great day to heat the pool and swim.
“How are things at Stark Security?” Dallas asks. “Treating my men well?”
Damien flashes a grin. “They’re mine now, and they’re all doing great. We’ve had some interesting work recently, as you well know.”
Jane squeezes Dallas’s hand, then stands with a nod to me. I unfold myself from the couch, grab my glass, and follow. We both know our men are about to dive into recounts of their organizations’ various adventures. And while I never tire of listening to the ins and outs of any of Damien’s projects or passions, right now I’m glad to have a moment to chat alone with Jane.
“Thank you again,” I say after we pause briefly to give the girls hugs on the play mat before moving on to the hot tub. We sit on the ledge, kick off our shoes, and dangle our feet into the warm water.
“Are you kidding? It’s great spending time with you. And I think you’re right. Damien really doesn’t know.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
“Very. I give you all sorts of props. I mean, the man knows everything. How does he not know you’re pregnant?”
“I’m afraid he does,” I admit. “You figured it out at brunch.” I’d turned down a mimosa. She’d dragged me into the kitchen and flat-out asked me.
“Nah, he doesn’t suspect. I’m just attuned to the signs. I mean, Mystery’s not even a year old yet. Getting close, though.”
“True. And you helped by bringing me a drink. Handy you had non-alcoholic wine in the house. I’ve been keeping a stash at home.”
“We don’t host as many parties as Dallas did when he was playing the role of the consummate playboy, but the wine cellar is still fully stocked to suit all preferences.”
“Cheers to that,” I say, then lift my glass and take a sip of what is essentially grape juice.
“What I still don’t know is why the secret? You never got the chance to tell me earlier.”
“I have a condition. A bicornuate uterus. Now that I’m past the first trimester, we’re pretty much out of the woods, but before…” I trail off with a shrug, thinking of the daughter we didn’t have and the flowers we planted by the house in her memory. “I didn’t want to tell him until I was sure. I want a celebration, not worry.”
“Damien’s not going to like being kept in the dark. That man’s your knight. Believe me,” she adds with a soft smile, “I know the type. And if—God forbid—you don’t make it…”
I nod as she trails off. “I know. You’re right. But I think this pregnancy is going to be okay. It’s hard to explain, but with Anne it felt different. Solid.” I draw in a breath and press my hand to my belly. “That’s how this feels. I didn’t tell him until after the first trimester then, either.”
She squeezes my hand. “So when is three months?”
“Now. Today, actually. Maybe I should wait a few more weeks to be sure, but like I said, this little one feels solid.” I press a hand to my belly. “That’s why I want our night alone in the city. So thank you for helping in my deception.”
“Happy to aid and abet. But just so you know, I’m telling Dallas. You may be able to keep this quiet, but I can’t.”
“Fine. Just tell him not to say anything until I’ve texted you that Damien knows.”
“Deal.” She tilts her head. “I’m still shocked he hasn’t figured it out.”
I shrug. “Me, too. But you know what they say, a wife has to have some secrets. At least for one more day, this little one is mine.”