Note from JK:
I’ve been wanting to write Abby’s story for ages, but she never seemed to have the right hero. Then Renly came knocking, and boom! It was so, so right!
I hope you enjoy!
“What a fabulous “friends to lovers” novella to treat yourself to on a lazy summer day. J Kenner throws us a steamy action-packed snack for the Stark world romance readers. If you are an avid Stark aficionado this will not disappoint. ”
A Stark Security Novella
From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J. Kenner comes a new story in her Stark Security series…
Hollywood consultant Renly Cooper is fed up with relationships. His recent breakup with a leading lady played out across the tabloids, and the former Navy Seal is more than ready to focus on his new position as an agent at the elite Stark Security agency. He’s expecting international stakes. Instead, his first assignment is to protect one of Damien Stark’s friends from a stalker. A woman who, to his delight, turns out to be one of his closest childhood friends.
After a foray into online dating puts tech genius Abby Jones in danger, she needs a bodyguard, and her business partner, Nikki Fairchild Stark, enlists help from Stark Security. When the assigned agent turns out to be her best friend from junior high—and her first crush—she’s thrilled to discover he’s even more delicious now. She hopes one sexy night can turn into more, but Renly is firmly in the friends-with-benefits camp.
As the threat to Abby increases, she tries to keep her growing feelings for Renly at bay. But as the sparks between them burn even hotter, can they go from friends to lovers when the first order of business is simply to keep Abby alive?
**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.**
Memories of You is Story # 6 in the Stark Security - Standalone Novels series.
Memories of You - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 06/08/2021 Story Type Novella Series Stark Security - Standalone Novels Place in Series Story #6 Genre Contemporary Romance Romantic Suspense 1001 Dark Nights - Multi Genre/Author
He lives there in my earliest memories. The boy next door with his quick smile and stupid jokes. We’d play tag in the cul-de-sac with his brother and the neighborhood kids. We’d look for rocks in the field behind our house, getting filthy, then splashing in the blow-up pool to wash off the grime. He was my best friend, my closest ally, the boy with whom I shared all my secrets.
He was my rock before he became my crush, the boy about whom I drew hearts on my notebook and wrote long passages in my diary. I never told him, though. I never shared that part of my heart. His friendship meant too much, and we clung to it like brother and sister over the years.
My heart broke for him when his family shattered.
That horrible D word.
Then he was gone. His father to one coast, and his mother to another, taking the boy I adored and his brother with her. I mourned the loss, even more so when we lost touch.
And though life went on, I can’t deny that he left a hole in my heart.
Now he’s back, and this time a wild passion crackles between us, filling me with hope and promise.
But I can see how the years have broken him, and now I can’t help but fear that the boy I always needed has grown into a man I can never have.
“I’m being paranoid,” I say as I walk down Wilshire toward Java B’s, a local Los Angeles coffee house that recently opened up in Santa Monica, right near my new office. “They were probably just wrong numbers, right?”
“Sure, Abby,” Lilah says, the sarcasm coming through my earbuds loud and clear. “Because that’s what people who dial a wrong number do. They don’t just hang up. They stay on the line and mouth breathe like the low-life cretins they are. And then they call a zillion more times in a two-day period.”
It’s a typical Lilah answer, and even though she’s right—I’m probably dealing with an actual creep and not a wrong number—it makes me feel better.
I ask her to hang on as I head into the coffee shop and get in line to order. She starts humming the theme from Jeopardy, and I roll my eyes and ignore her as I wait for my turn to order.
I met Lilah Barrett on the first day of my sophomore year of high school. I’d been working up the courage to tell Renly Cooper, my childhood bestie, that freshman year had been hell because I’d developed a huge crush on him. And rather than just deal with it, I’d avoided him. Not that he’d noticed. He’d been too into sports and debate and theater, whereas I was the tech geek who hung out in the STEM wing and wrote computer games instead of doing my homework.
I’d been hoping to man up and let him know that I missed hanging out with him, and that even though we didn’t live next door to each other anymore, that I was hoping we could still be friends. I wasn’t sure if I was going to own up to my crush, but Renly always had a knack for reading my mind, so I figured he probably already knew that part.
I was nervous as shit, just standing there waiting by his locker, when this fairy-like wraith of a girl came up and started fiddling with the combination lock.
“Um, are you getting something for Renly?” I’d asked.
She’d turned pale blue eyes on me, then said, “Wow, there’s a lot of orange in your aura. What’s stressing you out?”
I should have said it was none of her business.
I should have asked why she was getting into his locker.
Instead, I word vomited my life onto her, ending with the fact that I was waiting for Renly to basically tell him that my teenage hormones were under control and that I missed my bestie.
“Oh, wow. That really blows. Maybe you can track down his new phone number and tell him? Hanging on to that kind of emo baggage can really mess with your aura, and yours is already funky.”
I ignored the aura bit but dove straight to the heart of the matter. “New phone number?”
She shrugged. “They told me at the office that the guy assigned to this locker moved out of town. So I guess it’s mine until graduation. Sorry about that.”
Renly and Red had been doing the Divorced Parent Dance that summer, pushed off to stay with their dad up north, even though they didn’t want to go. It turns out that while they were away, their mom had pulled up stakes and moved herself and the boys down to Houston, which meant I hadn’t seen him since he’d left in June.
The whole situation sucked, but at least it meant that I didn’t have to pretend to be over my crush when I was around him. Not exactly a plus considering I was still missing my friend.
The upside was that I gained Lilah. And despite the fact that we’re so different—or maybe because of it—she fast became one of my closest friends.
Now we’re neighbors, too, as I rent half of a Santa Monica duplex that she inherited from her parents after they died in a helicopter crash our first year at UCLA.
“A latte?” she says once I’m back on the street. “I thought you were cutting down on caffeine.”
“No, you said I should cut down on caffeine. And I said I’d try. Today, I need frothy, caffeinated comfort.” I take a sip and sigh with pleasure. Then I frown when I remember why I need comfort in the first place.
“How many calls today?” she asks.
“Seven today. Five yesterday.”
“Do you think it has to do with Fuck Me Now?”
I hold back a snort. “That is not what the app is called, and you know it.”
“Hey, I just believe in truth in advertising.”
“That’s not what I’m looking for, and you know that too. I had that. It wasn’t what I wanted, and I wouldn’t sign up for that kind of app.” I know I sound frustrated, but it’s only because I am. It’s just so damn hard to meet anybody in this town, and I’m not interested in serial hookups or even friends with benefits.”
“You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry. Back to the topic. Do you think it has anything to do with Tribe Find?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?” About a month ago, I decided to try out a new friend and dating app that a guy I knew in college recently rolled out. You can use it to look for new friends—finding your tribe—or to set up dates. It’s supposed to be focused on relationships, not hookups, and while online dating was never my thing, since Cedric created it, I agreed to be a beta user.
“Do folks on the app have your phone number?”
“No,” I say. “The app does, but it’s not shared. But the calls are coming to my work phone, too. Those are the ones I answer. I let unknown calls on my cell roll to voicemail.”
“You’re getting them both places?”
“You went out on a couple of dates through the app, right?”
“Yeah, I—oh, hold on. It’s Darrin.”
I put Lilah on hold, then take the incoming call. Darrin is a new hire at the LA office of Greystone-Branch Consulting, Fairchild & Partners Development’s biggest client. And since I am the partner in “Partners,” I put on my office voice and take the call.
“Darrin, I’m not at my desk anymore. Did we forget something?” It’s past six on Friday, and I spent most of the morning and afternoon on a video call with him as we worked through various features they want added into some new marketing software we’re designing. The walk to get coffee was to clear my head before I take my laptop home, spread work out on my kitchen table, and dive into my backlog.
Yeah, I know how to start the weekend with a bang.
“No, no. I think we got a great start. There’s a lot to do, though, and Bijan is breathing down my neck. I was thinking I could meet you at your office tomorrow? Might be more efficient. Assuming that doesn’t mess up your weekend.”
“No, no, not at all.” Damn, damn, damn. I do plan to work tomorrow, but I’d intended to do it from home. Still, client relationships are important, and he’s right that we’re running tight on time. “How about we meet at two? I have to take care of some things in the morning.”
“Perfect,” he says. “And I appreciate it. I’m still new, and this is my first project to shepherd through from start to finish. I want to impress the boss, you know?”
I laugh. “Yeah. I know.” I feel the same way about my boss—correction, partner. Nikki Fairchild Stark is brilliant at tech and coding and relentless in getting a job done right. She’s also great with clients, drop dead pretty, and married to billionaire Damien Stark. I should be intimidated as hell, and I was in the early days. Now she’s become a truly close friend.
“Important?” Lilah asks when I come back on the line.
“He’s nervous about the deadline. I don’t blame him. There was that one guy,” I continue, shifting back to the creepy guy topic. “He kept telling me I was pretty and then wanted to chat about retro computer games. I mean, he was nice enough, just kinda awkward, but maybe…”
“Maybe it is him, and it’s not nefarious at all. Maybe he’s trying to work up the courage to talk to you.”
“Maybe…” It doesn’t feel right, though, and I tell her so.
“No way,” I say. “It got weird between us, but he wouldn’t—”
“Just tossing out ideas. And you know what I think about his aura.”
I frown. A former co-worker who quit about a month ago, Travis and I went out a couple of times. I’d thought he wanted to date. He thought we just wanted to fool around. It was rough for a while, but we worked it out. “We’re still friends,” I say. “And his aura is fine. Besides, he’s in Orange County. If he was obsessed with me, he’d have hung around.”
“Maybe,” she concedes. “But that leaves us back at the app. It’s probably some guy who figured out who you were from your profile picture and is bummed because you didn’t pick him from the masses. Or another one of the guys you went out for drinks with. We can rule out retro game boy, but did any of the others seem the stalky type?”
I consider that. “Not really.”
“Hmm. Well, maybe you should reach out to them anyway. See if any of them acts all shifty-eyed.”
I make a face. The last thing I want to do is to reach out to guys I didn’t hit it off with as friends or romantic partners. “I’m thinking about opting for the ignore it and it will go awayplan.”
To her credit, she laughs. “Well, that’s one way. And honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s just some asshole. How dangerous can a mouth breather be?”
Since I’m a huge horror movie fan, I don’t answer. But the sound of Michael Myers breathing immediately starts to play in my head. Great.
“Let’s continue this at home tonight. Cocktails on the porch?”
“Definitely,” I say, and we end the call.
Since my laptop is already in my tote, I don’t have to head back inside. Instead, I go straight to my car, which is parked on the street. Usually I park in the garage, but I’d popped out in the afternoon and there was a spot right there, so I grabbed it. Now I’m coming up on the rear of the cute little blue Fiat I bought when Nikki made me a partner.
I veer to the left toward the driver’s side, then slow, because something isn’t right. It takes a second for my mind to catch up with reality, but once I’ve reached the driver’s side door, there’s no escaping the truth.
My knees go weak, and I reach out, grabbing the side of the car to keep from falling. Because the hood of my car is covered in something viscous and red, and I’m pretty damn sure that it’s blood.
Renly Cooper leaned back against the desk that he’d been assigned when he joined Stark Security a few weeks ago. Honestly, it seemed longer. For the first time in a long time, he felt as if he’d found a home. A purpose.
And God knew a guy like him needed purpose in his work, because he sure as hell wasn’t mining it from his personal life.
From across the room, Linda Starr waved at him, then motioned for him to come join. He grinned, then nodded as he pushed off the desk. He’d only recently met Linda and her husband—or rather her ex-husband-soon-to-be-husband again—but he’d taken an instant liking to both of them. Hell, to everyone on the team.
He only hoped he could live up to their expectations of him. He’d been honest with Damien Stark and Ryan Hunter about the injury that had caused him to leave the SEALs, but he’d been a little vague on the details. The truth was, they wanted someone with Hollywood connections, and he’d wanted a job with a bit more gravitas. Now he was looking forward to escaping the Hollywood spotlight and taking some of the international assignments that he knew were becoming more and more frequent for the growing agency.
“You’re looking happy,” Linda said. “I hope that means I’m going to enjoy it here, too. Us newbies need to stick together.”
“I’m pretty sure this is the kind of job I was born for,” he said honestly. “Solid tactical and investigative operations on a global scale. It’ll be a nice change from working on movie sets.”
“A big change from your SEAL work for sure, but it must have been interesting.”
“It was,” he admitted. “But I want to be in the field. Not helping choreograph a fictional version of the field.”
She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing as if he was a puzzle she couldn’t figure out. “So why’d you do it in the first place?”
He grimaced. “Long story,” he said, which was technically true. “I’ll lay it out for you one day. I didn’t hate it—not by a long shot. And I met lots of interesting people.”
She trilled a laugh. “Yeah, the whole town’s seen pictures of you and those interesting people.”
She waved his words away. “I’m just giving you grief. Sorry. Bottom line is you liked it, but it wasn’t what you were made to do.”
“Then it’s good you’re here. Nice to have another freshman in the class. And your Hollywood connections are handy, right? I mean, you got me and Winston into that party.”
He chuckled. “Yes, I did.” He’d dated superstar Francesca Muratti longer than he should have, and her guilty pleasure was to go to those kinds of clubs and show just enough skin as she exited the limo that the inevitable tabloid reporters couldn’t resist publishing the pictures. She’d leave the really kinky stuff to the private rooms, but she knew how to get press, even if it wasn’t the kind of press Renly liked.
“I’m glad that worked out for you,” he added. She and Winston had gone into the sex party together as part of an operation, but he knew damn well they’d had issues of their own to work on, too.
The corner of her mouth twitched. “Oh, it did. For the case and for the two of us. Always nice to reconnect with the one you love, you know?” She nodded toward Winston, her expression a mixture of softness laced with heat.
“Yeah,” he lied. “I know.”
“Speaking of,” she continued, “I’m going to go mingle with him. I just wanted to say that I’m glad we’ll be working together.”
“Me too,” he said sincerely. In truth, there wasn’t anyone at Stark Security who wasn’t completely up to snuff. Except possibly him.
He drew in a breath, squared his shoulders, and ordered himself to get the hell over it. Then he let his gaze roam the room.
The workday was wrapping up, but everyone in town was in the office, along with a few spouses and friends, and all to welcome Linda to the fold. He’d had a similar welcome gathering when he’d officially joined the team, but Linda’s had an energy that his party hadn’t, primarily because the circumstances of her arrival at Stark Security were so unusual, what with the fact that—until a few weeks ago—her husband, Winston, had believed she was dead.
So it was a celebration of not only her new job, but her renewed life. And love, too. Because as he watched the two of them together—the heated glances, the shared smiles—it was clear that those two were meant for each other.
That’s what it looked like, anyway. But Renly had worked long enough in Hollywood to know that things weren’t always as they seemed.
Hollywood? Hell, his own life was a study in things not being what they seemed. Or at least his life was concrete support for the adage that good things never last.
He hoped Winston and Linda were the exception to that rule. He really did.
He blinked, then realized that he’d been staring at the couple, Linda’s hand tucked into Winston’s, her expression so full of love it made his heart ache. “Sorry,” he said. “I feel like a voyeur.”
They both laughed, and he mentally kicked himself as he turned toward Nikki Stark, who was standing right by the couple. Talk about an exception. As far as Renly could tell, Nikki and Damien Stark weren’t just in the top one percent for wealth, but also for passion. God knew those two had been through a lot, all played out in the tabloids, and they were still—
“Sorry,” Nikki said, the word interrupting his thoughts as she caught Linda’s eye. “There’s an emergency. I need to run.”
Winston stepped toward her. “The kids?”
She shook her head as her eyes scanned the room, presumably for Damien. “No. No, it’s my assistant. Sorry. I mean my partner.”
Renly frowned as that tidbit clicked into place. “Abby?” He took a step forward. “Is she okay?”
A few days before, he’d learned that his childhood friend, Abigail Jones, worked with Nikki. He’d planned to look her up right away, but he’d been busy following up on a corporate espionage investigation with Leah and just hadn’t done it yet. That and the fact that he treasured the memory of the friendship they’d had in their youth, and he didn’t want it to be tainted by the very real likelihood that they no longer clicked.
Nikki frowned at her phone and then looked up at him. “I—I… I’m not sure.” She swallowed, fear shadowing her lovely face. “Sorry. I really need to run,” Nikki continued, lifting her hand to catch Damien’s attention.
“Of course,” Winston said as she started to pass.
Renly didn’t even hesitate. This was Abby, after all. “Wait,” he said. “I’m coming with you.”
* * * *
Renly raced to the scene behind Nikki and Damien, the rumble and roar of his 2019 Ducati Panigale surrounding him. The sound was loud, almost numbing, but it damn sure wasn’t enough to erase the worry that was crawling through him like a parasite.
What the hell had happened to Abby?
He wished he’d asked for the address. Damien Stark knew how to handle that Bugatti, and he was definitely pushing the speed limit, but Renly would have left him in the dust by now if he only knew where they were going.
One turn, then another, and too many damn stoplights, and all the while his mind was spinning with fear.
In the end, the ride took less than ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Then, when he saw her standing there by a little blue Fiat that was so very Abby, he actually had to take a moment to breathe, shocked by not only the intensity of his relief, but also by the flood of joy that burst through him simply from seeing her again.
Nikki was already at her side, having tumbled out of the Bugatti the moment it stopped, and Damien was just a few steps away.
Renly, however, felt frozen.
She was okay.
He let the words roll over him, shocked by his intense visceral reaction, though he knew he shouldn’t be. Abby had been his rock when his mother had lost her hearing, and then again when his father had packed up and moved out, hauling his ass to New York.
So yeah. Abby was important to him. Of course he was relieved.
He was also stalling, he realized, though he wasn’t sure why.
Except, of course, that was a lie. It had been over a decade since they’d seen each other, and yet he would have recognized her anywhere. Her wide eyes and blond curls. That sweet mouth that he remembered in a smile but was now curved into a frown as her teeth worried her lower lip.
Over the years he’d gone so far as to pick up the phone to call her, only to put it down again when he realized that he was calling because there was shit in his life he wanted to talk through—and why the hell would he think she’d appreciate him dumping that in her lap without even a Christmas card during the passing years?
She’d remained in his mind and his heart, the only close female friend he’d ever had in his life. Even Tascha, who’d gone side by side with him into combat and for whom he’d put his life on the line, had never gotten close enough to see the childhood demons that had formed the man. And that still tormented him.
Abby had, and maybe it made him a damn pussy, but if she didn’t recognize him, it was going to be like a goddamn knife to the heart.
He got off the bike and hurried toward them, pulling off his helmet as he went. Abby was shaking her head, hovering near the driver’s door as Nikki said something soothing.
Then she stopped, her head turning as her eyes went wide. Then she squealed and sprinted toward him, her arms wide as she threw herself at him, crying out, “Renly!”
He caught her and spun her around, all the time feeling like a damn idiot. This was Abby, after all.
So what the hell had he been worried about?