Stark Ever After Novella 8
My life with Damien has never been fuller. Every day is a miracle, and every night I lose myself in the oasis of his arms.
But there are new challenges, too. Our families. Our careers. And new responsibilities that test us with unrelenting, unexpected trials.
I know we will survive—we have to. Because I cannot live without Damien by my side. But sometimes the darkness seems overwhelming, and I am terrified that the day will come when Damien cannot bring the light. And I will have to find the strength inside myself to find my way back into his arms.
Hold Me is Story # 4.1 in the Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki series.
Hold Me - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 05/23/2017 Story Type Novella Primary Characters Damien Stark Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Series Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki Place in Series Story #4.1 Genre Contemporary Romance
More About This Story
“See?” I say, balancing on the edge of my daughter’s bed as I close her favorite book, Goodnight, Sleep Tight, Little Bunnies. “All the animals are asleep, and now it’s time for Lara to go to sleep, too.”
“Kitty sleep?” She holds up her stuffed cat, its once plush fur now matted and dull, a reflection of its status as the best-loved animal in her menagerie.
“Kitty and Lara can both go night-night, okay?”
She wraps her arms around Kitty and nods, her thumb going into her mouth.
“I love you, Lara Ashley Stark,” I say as her eyes start to flutter closed. Honestly, mine are a little fluttery, too. Who would have thought that taking care of an infant and a two-year-old could be so exhausting?
“Love Mama,” she murmurs around her thumb as I bend over to give her another kiss, breathing in the scent of baby shampoo and powder.
Her eyes open again, and she blinks at me. “Baba?” she asks, still using the Chinese word for Daddy that she’s used since the day we adopted her. She was twenty months old then. And although it’s been only eight months since we came home from China, it’s already hard to remember what it was like not having this precious girl in our lives.
“Daddy loves you so much,” I say, stroking her hair and speaking softly so that she’ll drift off. “Close your eyes, baby girl. Daddy will come kiss you night-night later. When you’re already in dreamland.”
I have to fight a melancholy frown. Although Damien tries hard to be home for both our daughters’ bedtimes, his work as a master of the known universe sometimes keeps him away.
In contrast, I’ve been a permanent fixture in our Malibu home ever since we brought Lara home. Except, of course, for the hospital stay when our second daughter, Anne, was born almost four months ago.
At first, I’d stayed home to bond with Lara. And for that first month, both Damien and I had concentrated one hundred percent on our family. Then he’d returned to the office, and I’d started to handle a few work tasks from home.
I had intended to take a typical three-month maternity leave with Lara, then spend the last month of my pregnancy working in my office in order to make sure all of my clients were happy and every project on track before Anne came along.
But I ended up on bedrest for the last month, which turned out to be only two weeks, as Anne came early. And as soon as she made her appearance, I dove immediately into another three months of leave.
Now I’m on the last weekend before I return to my office and a full-time work schedule. And even though I’m starting to go a little stir-crazy during my maternity leave, I also know that I’m wildly lucky. I have two beautiful, healthy daughters, and I’m married to a man who not only adores me and our children, but who makes my heart flutter with nothing more than a glance or the whisper of my name.
Even more, he’s a man whose talent and resources have ensured that we have an amazing home, that our children will never want for anything, and that even if neither one of us ever works another day, we have the means to keep our family not just afloat, but living in comfort and privilege.
I’ve known about Damien’s wealth as long as I’ve known him. Longer, really, since as a former professional tennis star turned billionaire entrepreneur, Damien’s reputation is both deep and wide. And goodness knows I’ve experienced firsthand the luxury and convenience that his dollars can buy. Everything from private jets to personal drivers to penthouse suites in hotels all over the world.
But it wasn’t until after we had our girls that I started to truly feel the impact of his wealth. How it will protect their future. How it’s a cushion against all the scary stuff that life can throw at you.
Except that’s bullshit. And as I look down at my daughter—at her sweet, innocent face—I have to sigh. Because the truth is, there’s no protection. Not ever. Not really.
No one knows that better than Damien and me.
I grew up in Dallas with the kind of money and privilege that oil and gas interests can buy. Not Stark-level money, but not shabby. And yet those dollars didn’t shield me from pain. Didn’t keep me from trying to escape from the dark corners of my life by taking a blade to my own skin.
And the empire that Damien built didn’t erase the abuse he suffered as a child or eradicate all the challenges that have been tossed at him—at us—over the years. Everything from physical assault to blackmail to professional sabotage.
But not my kids, I think fiercely. Maybe I can’t protect them from everything out there in the world, but I can damn sure try. And at least they have me and Damien as parents, and not Elizabeth Fairchild or Jeremiah Stark.
The very idea makes me shudder, and I stroke a soft hand over Lara’s hair. “I love you, baby,” I whisper. “And I will always be there for you.”
The word seems to expand in my mind, reaching out and poking me with guilt-stained fingers. For the last three months, I’ve mostly left my still-nascent business in the hands of Eric and Abby, my two employees, both of whom have been with me almost two years now.
But Monday, our nanny starts working full time—and I’m going back to work. And the truth is that I can’t wait. Even though I adore my girls—and even though we don’t need the money—I’m eager to dive back into my business and get dirty. I started with just a love of coding and designing apps, and from that meager start, I built Fairchild Development from the ground up. I’m incredibly proud of not only the business, but its products and services, its growing client base, and, most important, its excellent reputation.
And while I can do some of the work from home, it’s not the same as being in the office in much the same way as Damien. Sitting behind my desk and running my empire—albeit a much smaller one.
So, yes, I’m excited about Monday. But as I gently stroke Lara’s warm cheek and watch the rise and fall of her chest as she breathes through parted lips, I have to admit that I’m also dreading it. Because my girls will be here in Malibu while I’m about an hour away in Studio City. I’m going to miss something wonderful, just like Damien so often misses dinner or bedtime. A word or a reaction. A silly face or a boisterous giggle.
And even though that hasn’t even happened to me yet, the inevitable certainty feels like a knife in my heart.
With a heavy sigh, I stand slowly, careful not to move the bed too much. But apparently not careful enough, because as I rise, Lara’s eyes flutter open, and her mouth moves in a silent Mama.
“Mama’s here, precious,” I say softly. I raise my hand to cover a yawn—it’s been an exhausting day. “Go back to sleep, sweetie.”
“Baba,” she says sleepily, extending her hand.
“I know. Mommy wants Baba here, too.”
“Baba,” she repeats, and this time a sweet smile touches her lips before she breaks into a wide grin. “Baba kiss.”
I don’t see him, but I know he’s there. And not just from Lara’s reaction. It’s his presence. His heat. The way he fills the room like a force of nature, so that everything in it shifts just a little, making it impossible to not be aware of him.
I turn slowly, my own smile blooming wider as I see him in the doorway. He’s leaning against the frame, those incredible dual-colored eyes reflecting so much love it makes my heart swell.
“How about a kiss for both my girls?” he says, his smile aimed at Lara, but his gaze going to me.
I nod, then sigh happily as he moves to Lara’s bedside, then bends to kiss her. “Look at you in your big girl bed.” She moved from her crib to the toddler bed only a week ago, and it’s still a source of endless fascination.
“Big!” she says, her expression and her tone making clear that her daddy’s presence is enough to tease her away from dreamland. She thrusts out her arms. “Up!”
“Oh, no,” Damien says, easing her back, then handing her Kitty before pulling up her little blanket. “It’s late. And big girls with big girl beds have to get their sleep. Right, Snuggles?”
“Lara!” she says. “Lara Ashley Stark!”
“Oh, that’s right.” He taps the end of her nose. “This big girl is Lara. Give Daddy a kiss, then time for sleep.”
“Buf-eye,” she insists, and Damien obliges, leaning in to use his eyelashes to give her a butterfly kiss on her cheek.
“And now night-night, okay?”
She nods, her thumb going back to her mouth. “Daba,” she says, and I press my hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh. “Nye nye.”
He tucks her in, then stands up slowly before turning to me, a delicious grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Mama, kiss?” he asks, making me laugh.
I hold out a hand, then lead him into the hall. “Kiss,” I demand, then melt as he pins me against the wall, his mouth closing over mine, hard and demanding, as if we’d been apart for weeks instead of just hours.
“I missed my girls today,” he says as we break apart, leaving me breathless. “All of them. But I missed you the most.”
I sigh happily. “I didn’t think you’d be back so soon. You said you were trapped in San Diego.” Even though it’s Saturday, he’d been summoned to one of Stark International’s satellite offices just after lunchtime, and he’d told me that the nature of the crisis was such that he probably wouldn’t be done before midnight.
“For a while there, I thought I might have to fly from San Diego to Pittsburg,” he says. “But we managed to get things back on track around six. I came home in the chopper,” he adds. “You didn’t hear it land?”
Damien installed a landing pad at the same time he built the house, and it’s come in handy on more than one occasion. Usually, I hear him coming and going, but this time, I shake my head. “I guess because Lara’s room is on the other side of the house.”
“Good,” he says. “If I take it home more often, I don’t have to worry about waking the girls.”
“Good point,” I say, then press my hand over my smile, fighting the urge to laugh.
“Helicopters are funny? Because I know waking the kids isn’t funny. That way leads to crankiness.”
“Now you’re being funny,” I say. “No, I was just thinking a few minutes ago that we have more resources than other parents. Your arrival illustrates my point.”
He chuckles, his eyes crinkling with amusement. “Always happy to help.”
I ease up closer, hooking my arms around his waist. Then I lift myself up on my tiptoes and murmur, “I can think of a few other things you can help me with.”
His hands slide down so that he’s cupping my rear, and when he draws me closer, I feel the press of his erection and release a soft moan of anticipation.
He says nothing else, just takes my hand and leads me toward our bedroom.
The master bedroom is on the third floor of this house that Damien was building when we met in Los Angeles. Technically, we’d met six years earlier, but that brief encounter when he was a celebrity judge and I was a beauty pageant contestant is little more than a prologue to the life we now have together.
In a somewhat unique design, the third floor serves as the heart of this house and features a massive area for entertaining that opens onto a balcony with a stunning view of the Pacific. A small but well-designed kitchen dominates the opposite side of the floor. Originally planned as a workstation for caterers, it’s turned out to be our primary kitchen, as it’s much more user-friendly than the commercial monstrosity on the first floor.
The master bedroom is behind the open area, and in fact it shares a wall. And though we rarely used it before adopting Lara, there is another room on the floor that was designed as a guest room. It’s tucked in behind the master bedroom, shares a wall with the master closet, and boasts windows that open onto both the back and the side of the house.
It’s Lara’s room now, done up in a cheery yellow, which is fitting since our cat, Sunshine, spends so much time in there, watching over the little girl that Sunshine has decided is her responsibility. As Damien leads me through the double doors that mark the entrance to our bedroom, Sunshine passes us going the opposite direction, her tail high as she trots toward Lara’s room, ready to curl up in the armchair she’s claimed and guard her charge for the night.
“She’s been checking on Anne,” I say, nodding toward the master sitting area, which we’ve converted to a nursery. Sunshine adores Anne, too, but she knows that she isn’t allowed in the crib, which makes the baby much less interesting to her. Still, our cat has a nightly ritual, and it involves circling the bassinet two full times, as if searching for any possible dangers. Only when she’s certain that Anne is secure does Sunshine head to her nighttime post in Lara’s room.
“I think the cat has the right idea,” Damien says, still holding my hand as he steers us toward our youngest daughter.
I put her down over an hour ago, and now she’s sleeping peacefully, her little hands curled around the edge of the striped blanket that came home with us from the hospital. A truckload of toys and blankets and other loveys from our friends, but her favorite thing in the world is a thin blanket from the maternity ward.
I lean my head on Damien’s shoulder and his arm goes around me as we watch our little miracle sleep. I have a somewhat rare uterine condition, and the odds of me carrying to term were pretty crappy. So Anne is our miracle baby, although every day that I watch her I realize how miraculous every child is.
“What did she do today?” he asks, though I know what he’s really asking is, Did I miss something spectacular?
It’s the hardest part of not being here. Of going away to a job. And as I tell him that our little princess rolled from her tummy to her back for the very first time, I can’t help but wonder what milestone I’m going to miss when I go back to work.
“Did you get it on video?”
“I didn’t have my phone handy,” I admit. “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe she’ll show me herself in the morning.” He leads me out of the sitting area and to our bed. “Right now, I’m thinking of a different kind of rolling.”
I laugh. “Is that right, Mr. Stark? Maybe you better show me what you have in mind.”