Stark Ever After Novella
Each day with Damien is a miracle, each moment with our children a gift. And yet I cannot escape the growing sense that a storm is gathering, threatening to pull me away, to rip us apart. To drag me down, once again, into a darkness to which I swore never to return.
I have to fight it—I know that. And I am waging the battle with of all my heart. But it is Damien who is my strength, and we both know that the only way to push away the darkness is for him to fold me in his arms and claim me completely. And for me to surrender myself, once again, to the fire that burns between us.
**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.**
Please Me is Story # 4.2 in the Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki series.
Please Me - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 08/28/2018 Story Type Novella Series Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki Place in Series Story #4.2 Genre Contemporary Romance
“Well, I think it’s a brilliant idea,” I say, squatting on the floor and smiling into my daughter’s eyes, even though the words are meant for Abby, my business partner. “And so does Anne, don’t you, my sweet little girl?”
“Mama!” She belts the word, and it wraps around me like a hug to my heart. Her chubby arms reach for me as she toddles over, and I eagerly cuddle her close as she yawns and rubs her eyes, then snuggles against me. It’s forty minutes past her usual nap time, and although she’s peaceful now, I know that crankiness is imminent if I don’t get her down pronto.
Carefully, I settle her into the white crib that takes up a large chunk of the space beside my desk. “Nap time,” I say, then bend over and give her forehead a kiss. “Time for Anne to go sleepy-bye and dream of Miss Abby’s awesome idea.”
As her lids flutter closed, she reaches for me. But I know it’s not Mommy she wants but her blankie, and I bend down to grab the striped hospital blanket that came home with us just shy of twenty months ago. We’ve tried urging stuffed animals on her. A smiling tiger. A silly giraffe. But no animal wins out over her blankie.
Her lips curve into a smile at the same time as her little fingers curl around the blanket. I feel a hitch in my chest, as if the weight of my love for this tiny little person is too much to bear. Then I draw in a breath and try to shift my thoughts away from my youngest daughter and back to the world of smartphone apps.
When I turn, Abby flashes a wide grin, her eyes shining with humor. “You’re cracking me up, Nikki,” she whispers. “I mean, this has got to be the weirdest developmental meeting ever.”
I lift a shoulder in a casual shrug. “What can I say?” I whisper back. “I like to be different.” I grab the baby monitor, then nod toward the back door and the patio beyond where we can talk without the risk of waking my little girl. “Come on.”
Anne’s always been a good sleeper. But like her namesake, Ashley Anne Fairchild Price, she’s a cranky little monster if she doesn’t get enough.
My sister Ashley was my rock when I was growing up, the reason I survived the horror of a childhood with our mother at the helm. I relied on Ashley. Looked up to her. And loved her unconditionally.
But dear God, that girl was a bitch if she didn’t get a good night’s sleep.
My youngest, I fear, is going to be a lot like her auntie.
The thought makes my chest tighten again, only this time the love is tainted with pain. Because Anne will never know my sister. For so many years, I’d believed that Ashley had escaped from the hell our mother had inflicted on us. I thought that only I remained caught in her spiderweb, forced to starve and suffer all sorts of abuse at my mother’s hand simply so that I could be her pretty, polished pageant doll.
Cutting had been my ultimate escape. A release valve for all the horror and pain that built up inside of me. And when the deep cuts on my thighs rendered me useless in a bathing suit competition, I finally found my freedom. From that particular horror, anyway.
Ashley’s escape was more permanent. Believing that she’d failed as a wife—that she would never live up to that model of perfection our mother so rigidly demanded—she killed herself.
Her death ripped a hole in my heart.
I’ve missed her for years, but now that I have children, her absence weighs on me even more. Now there are two little girls who will never know their aunt. And I’m the only one who will ever truly understand the hole Ashley’s absence will leave in their lives.
“You okay?” Abby catches my eye before settling into one of the upholstered patio chairs.
“Fine,” I say, then manufacture a smile, willing my mood to match the lie. “Mind wandering.” I take the chair next to her so that we’re both looking out over the pristine Malibu beach and the crashing waves of the Pacific beyond.
We’re at the beachfront cottage Damien built for me before we had kids. I’d mentioned that the only thing our stunning hillside house lacked was a back door that opened right onto the sand.
Because he spoils me rotten, Damien surprised me with the bungalow. It’s at the base of our property, accessed by a winding path that leads to the main house. It’s small but beautifully designed. And when I learned about the cottage, a wild mixture of awe and joy fluttered through me.
Awe from the fact that Damien could so cavalierly decide to build a house. Joy from the reality that he did it for no purpose other than because it would make me happy.
I come from Texas oil and gas money, so I’m no stranger to the finer things in life. But compared to Damien, I grew up in abject poverty. Not that he always had his billions. No, Damien Stark fought for the life he’s built and for everything he’s ever owned. And that, I think with a small smile, includes me.
I’m still not sure what lucky star shined down and blessed me with Damien’s love, but I know that it is real and unfathomably deep. I know, because he tells me so. More important, he shows me. In every touch, every kiss, every silly or extravagant gift. He is my heart and my soul. My breath and my body.
And the miracle is that I love him just as completely.
We know each other, he and I. Intimately. Passionately. Fully and completely.
Which is why I’m absolutely certain that something is troubling him. Something he hasn’t told me about, but that’s been bothering him for a couple of days. And though I tell myself that it must be trouble at work—because between the two of us he’s promised me no more secrets—somehow I don’t quite believe it.
Beside me, Abby leans back with a sigh, and I force my thoughts back to the present, reluctantly letting go of my fears and worries.
“You know,” Abby says thoughtfully, “I thought our offices in Studio City were nice. But this is definitely a step up.” She shifts to face me directly. “Can we have wine?”
I laugh. “Why, Abigail Jones, I’m shocked.”
She rolls her eyes. “No, you’re not. Besides, you’re the one who keeps saying how awesome the new app idea is. We need to toast it.”
“Can’t argue with that.” And since I try to be accommodating to my guests and business partners—and since a glass of Chardonnay sounds great—I grab a bottle from the small outdoor wine fridge, then pour a glass for each of us.
“To you,” I say. “And to the Mommy Watch app.”
The temporary name sucks—we both know that—but the idea is great. Abby’s come up with an idea for a smartphone app designed specifically for new moms who’ve returned to the workplace. It will integrate all the various mommy resources that are already out there in one place. Video or audio baby monitoring, nanny cams, Q&A resources, growth logs, mommy’s weight loss logs, and a zillion other options, ultimately providing a new mom with a unified mommy’s helper app.
I figure it’s a winner. And since Abby’s a whiz at coding—which is why I hired her in the first place—I know she can pull it off.
“And you really don’t think we should wait on it?” she asks.
“I really don’t.” I mean what I say, but I do understand her hesitation. Not much more than a year ago, Abby had been my employee, and I was a frustrated wreck trying to be a mom and a business owner.
With Damien’s resources, of course, I didn’t have to work at all, and I knew it. But the whole reason I’d come to LA from Dallas was to start my own development company. The fact that I married a master of the universe didn’t change any of that.
My girls, however, did. Our almost four-year-old, Lara, was twenty months old when we adopted her, and I got pregnant with Anne right before we left for China. I’d intended to go back to work full time after three months with the girls and working from the kitchen table.
All that had changed when I’d stepped foot in the office. I’d realized, painfully, that I wanted to be home for Anne’s first steps and her first words. I wanted to watch my oldest, Lara, play with our cat or bang out a tune on the piano. I wanted to laugh as she watched Dora the Explorer and sang the map song. And, dammit, I wanted to go to Gymboree with her and bounce balls in a nylon parachute.
But I wanted my career, too.
So after much soul-searching, I compromised. I offered Abby a partnership. I closed our Studio City office, saving myself hours on the road. And I converted my beloved bungalow into an office.
Now our receptionist/office manager, Marge, comes here three days a week. Abby works from home or comes to the bungalow when we need a meeting. And though my original plan had been to keep the business stumbling along servicing existing clients and projects, things have been going so well that we recently took on two additional clients and one new employee.
And, of course, we’re getting back into developing original content. Like Abby’s app.
“Yes,” I say, returning to the topic with a decisive nod. “Absolutely, we should move forward. You can get Travis on it with you.”
She nods thoughtfully, her attention firmly on the ocean. “He’d be good.”
I bite back a smile. Travis joined Fairchild Development as a programmer two months ago, and he and Abby hit it off immediately. She’s totally unwilling to admit the same to me—probably because she’s afraid I’ll disapprove. But so long as the sparks between them don’t impact the work, I haven’t got a problem.
“Anything else that we haven’t gone over?”
Abby flips through the black leather portfolio with Fairchild & Partners Development monogrammed on the front. She scribbles a few notes, scratches through a few lines, then turns to me with a shrug. “I think we’ve hit everything. So I’ll talk to Travis in the morning? I can meet him for breakfast near my place, or we could meet here.”
I shake my head. “I’m taking tomorrow off. Remember? Long weekend.”
She lifts her glass to me. “The upside of being the boss. Have a good day off.”
I think of my elaborate plans for the weekend. Plans that involve Damien, candlelight, and a significant amount of time in bed. A warm flush spreads over my skin, and I raise my glass in return. “Believe me,” I say with conviction. “I intend to.”
By the time Anne wakes up, Abby and I have each downed two glasses of wine, and I insist that she leave her car and let Edward take her home.
“Oh, I don’t want to—”
“It’s no trouble. It’s his job. And I promise you he enjoys it. Besides, he only listens to his audiobooks when he’s on the road, and I happen to know that he’s almost to the end of the latest Steve Berry thriller. Trust me when I say he wants to go for a drive.”
She laughs but agrees, and I shoot Edward a text asking him to pull the limo around and meet us in the circular drive that fronts the house.
Abby raises a brow. “A limo?”
I shrug. “What’s the fun of having a limo at my disposal if I can’t send my partner home in it?”
“Eric blew it big time,” she says, referring to the second of my former business development execs. He took a job in New York only a few days before my decision to cut back—and to make Abby a partner.
“He’s having the time of his life in Manhattan,” I say. Which is probably true. But the more relevant truth is that I miss having him on my team. Abby and I excel on the tech side. But Eric was a whiz at client relations. He thrived on wining and dining potential and existing clients. Me, I’d rather hunker down with my keyboard.
To be honest, I’ve been following his career. And while he’s doing well, he’s not standing out. The company that he went to work for was bought out. Now Eric’s a small fish in a big pond. And I can’t help but wonder if he’d like to come back to being a big fish in a smaller pond.
That, however, is a problem for another day. Right now, I just want to get back to the house. Back to Damien and the kids.
As soon as I’ve changed Anne, we head up the crushed stone path that leads to the main house, my little girl toddling alongside me, holding my hand. Abby gives a low, appreciative whistle when she sees the limo, not to mention Edward, who is decked out in his uniform, perfectly pressed and starched. “Madam,” he says, opening the door for her. As he does, I see that he’s stocked the bar, and I give him an appreciative nod. He doesn’t respond—he’s far too professional—but I see the glint of amusement in his eyes.
“North Hollywood,” he says, indicating the text I sent earlier. “Should be plenty of time to finish my book.”
“You’re welcome,” I say with a laugh, and this time I earn myself a full-blown smile. “Feel free to take the evening off,” I add, knowing that Damien drove his new Tesla to the office this morning. “But we’ll see you at ten tomorrow?” He’s in charge of morning transportation for my surprise for Damien.
“Of course, Mrs. Stark.”
I’ve repeatedly told him to call me Nikki, and he’s repeatedly ignored me. At this point, I think I need to give up and declare Edward the winner.
I watch as they pull out of the drive, waving at the tinted window behind which Abby sits, presumably either waving back or pouring herself another drink. I remember the first time I was chauffeured in that limo, and a hot flood of sensual awareness courses through me, the memory making my body hum. I close my eyes, reveling in the heat and the memory of Damien’s voice surrounding me. Teasing me. Commanding me.
I did things that night I would never have imagined doing, submitting totally to Damien’s firm voice and sensual commands. I still do. The connection between us is so strong it’s like a physical bond, which is why I’m so troubled by the fact that he’s been distracted and distant these last few days, but hasn’t told me why.
I sigh and call to Anne, who’s wandered off to look at rocks. She hurries over, and I take her hand, preparing to head inside. But I stop when I hear the sharp beep of a horn underscored by the rumble of an engine. An instant later, a sleek, classic Thunderbird convertible careens into view, then screeches to a halt in the spot previously occupied by the limo.
“Ryan actually let you drive that?” I ask my best friend, Jamie, as she pulls off her scarf in true Grace Kelly fashion. It’s a fitting comparison. Jamie might be dark instead of blonde, but like the princess, she’s got a stunning, unique style that the camera absolutely adores. I’m photogenic and pretty, but my looks are of the wholesome, blonde, girl-next-door variety. Whereas Jamie is the epitome of sophistication, elegance, and sensuality.
Jamie tilts her head up in response to my question. “This old thing? He has a new toy now. Honestly, we should never let them shop together.”
Damien and Ryan both now own the latest Teslas, not yet available to the general public. But I don’t believe her about it being open season in the Hunter family garage. Ryan babies that Thunderbird—and he knows damn well that Jamie isn’t the most careful driver on the planet.
“You snagged the keys the second he left for London this morning, didn’t you?”
She bats her eyes innocently. “He left them in the back of his desk drawer, behind the box of stamps. That’s practically an engraved invitation.”
I refrain from responding. I need to set a good example for Anne, after all.
Jamie falls in step beside me, then puts down her hand for Anne to grab. “Hey, there, cutie. Did you miss your Aunt Jamie?”
Jamie’s not actually related to me, but we’ve been best friends forever, and we’re definitely family.
“We’re going to have such fun this weekend,” she tells Anne, who jumps up and down, clearly excited to see Jamie.
“Big plans?” I ask.
“We’re going to have a girls’ weekend, aren’t we, Princess?”
“Pinciss!” Anne repeats, and Jamie winks at me.
“See?” she says. “We’re going to have a blast.”
“Just don’t corrupt my kids, okay?”
Damien doesn’t know it yet, but I’m whisking him away for a romantic weekend. And since that’s pretty much impossible with two little girls in tow, Jamie volunteered to babysit. To say I’m grateful would be an understatement, because about an hour after I’d finalized all my arrangements, our live-in nanny, Bree, asked if she could take a long weekend to go to Vegas for her sister’s unannounced, elopement-style wedding.
Fortunately, Jamie’s husband is in Europe through next week checking in with all of the heads of security for the various European divisions of Stark International. Jamie didn’t go with him because she was supposed to work, but when her schedule freed up, she volunteered to babysit in what was either a legitimate moment of female solidarity or a complete and total shift into insanity.
I’m going with solidarity.
Whatever her reason, I’m grateful. And even though Jamie can be a spazz, I also know that she’ll watch my kids like a hawk and guard them with her life. Best of all, Jamie agreed to stay in the house, which is decked out with top-of-the-line security, baby monitors galore, and a well-stocked kitchen and wet bar. The latter being more for Jamie than for the kids. Plus, Jamie knows the place well. She’s stayed in our guest house a number of times, but of course that’s Bree’s place now. So this weekend, Jamie’s staying in the first-floor guest suite, which isn’t too shabby if I do say so myself.
As we open the front door, I’m almost bowled over by the high pitched “Mama!” that emanates from Lara’s almost four-year-old lungs. She barrels toward me, her short legs pumping, then clings to my leg. “I missed you, Mama! I love you!”
I reach down and scoop her up. “I love you right back, baby girl. Did you have fun with Miss Bree today?”
“We painted,” Bree said, smiling from where she’d halted at the base of the stairs.
“I thought maybe,” I reply with a smile. My little girl’s shoulder-length coal black hair is dappled with yellow at the tips, and there’s a blob of green right on the end of her nose.
“It’s water-based,” Bree assures me. “It’ll wash right out.”
“Well, if it doesn’t, that’s fine. I think it’s a fashion statement.”
Bree laughs at the same time that Lara notices Jamie and releases my leg in favor of the prodigal aunt. As Jamie navigates both kids—I figure she might as well dive into the weekend now—I head over to Bree.
“When are you going?”
“Now, if that’s okay. I’ve already packed my stuff into my car.”
“That’s fine,” I assure her. “Drive safe and congratulate your sister for me.”
“Will do. And I’ll be back late on Sunday, so I can get the kids up on Monday morning. Do you need me to do anything for tomorrow before I go?” Bree had helped me make some of the arrangements for my surprise, but now I just shake my head.
“It’s all under control.”
“Sweet,” she says, then grins mischievously. “Have a good time.”
“That’s my plan.”
As soon as she’s out the door, I turn my attention to the girls. “Daddy’s home soon. Should we make snacks?”
“Teddy Grahams!” Lara squeals.
Jamie cocks her head. “I was hoping for the adult variety liquid snack.”
“Gotcha covered. And as for you, little rugrat,” I say as I scoop Lara up and hang her upside down, “I think apples and cheese for a little girl, and something a little more interesting for Daddy. Okay?”
She tries to bob her head, but since she’s upside down, she just shimmies in my arms.
The house boasts a huge, commercial grade kitchen on the first floor, but I never use it. Instead, we climb the massive free-floating staircase to the third floor, then cross the open area to the smaller, normal-human sized kitchen that was originally intended as prep space for caterers.
It’s still used for parties, but for the most part, the smaller kitchen has become the heart of our home, and as soon as I put Lara down, she scrambles to the breakfast table where her coloring books and crayons are scattered.
As she scribbles madly, Jamie pours wine, and I slice up fruit and cheese, then toss some crackers into a bowl. When Damien arrives, I’ll pull out olives and some chicken salad I picked up at the deli. Not wildly extravagant, but nice enough to accompany the bourbon I’m sure he’ll want.
I’ve just popped a cube of Wisconsin Cheddar into my mouth when my phone chimes, signaling a call from Damien. “Hey,” I say through a mouthful of cheese. “Are you in the car?”
“Actually, I’m stuck here. It’s been one of those days.”
“Oh.” Disappointment crashes over me, along with the fear that my plans for a long weekend are going to be swept away in a flood of work crises. I draw in a breath and catch Jamie’s eye, her expression sympathetic. “Well, Jamie’s here. She can watch the kids, and I could come stay the night at the Tower Apartment.” Stark International is based in Stark Tower, one of LA’s downtown high rises. Damien’s private office takes up half the top floor, and his—now our—private apartment takes up the other half of the space.
“That’s tempting, but no. I need…”
As he trails off, that knot of worry in my stomach starts to tighten. “What?” I whisper, hoping that now, finally, he’ll tell me what’s the matter.
“I need to deal with this.”
“I’ll be home as soon as I can. I promise. I love you. Kiss the girls for me. And I’ll see you later tonight.”
I hesitate, waiting to hear those familiar words: Until then, imagine me, touching you. But there’s only silence, and I swallow rising tears. “I love you, too. Do you want to talk to La—” I begin, but he’s already clicked off.
I draw a breath and stare at my phone before lifting my head and meeting Jamie’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “But honestly, Nicholas, the man pretty much runs the entire known universe. Of course there’s stuff on his mind.”
She’s right, and I draw in a breath, suck it up, and force myself into a good mood as we change into swimsuits, then take the kids onto the back patio. Lara’s becoming a little fish, so I let her put on her floaties and splash in the shallow end as Jamie and I dangle our feet in the water, our wine now in plastic cups. We talk about everything and nothing, the way best friends do, as we watch my oldest giggle as she blows bubbles in the water and leaps fearlessly off the side of the pool. Behind us, Anne plays with a LEGO Duplo set quietly in the shaded activity pop-up, not yet ready to brave the pool.
All in all, it’s a perfect day, marred only by my lingering fears that won’t dissolve no matter how much I try and will them to.
Later, Jamie does the honor of reading to Lara. Her favorite is still Good Night, Sleep Tight, Little Bunnies, and both Damien and I have it memorized. As Jamie takes care of my oldest, I read Goodnight, Gorilla to Anne and then settle her into her crib. I linger, watching her sweet face as she drifts off to sleep, grateful that I have such easy kids. Not that there aren’t tears and crankiness, but today was a tantrum-free day.
And hallelujah for that.
Jamie and I meet up again on the patio, and I keep my phone open to the monitoring app as we settle down for more snacking and chatting. I feel like a teenager at a slumber party again, although that illusion fades when Jamie yawns deeply, then stands up and announces that she’s going to bed. Jamie never crashed when we were teens. She would have considered it a red mark of failure.
When I remind her of this, she just shrugs and shoots me an impish grin. “Yeah, but the reason I’m tired now is that last night Ryan and I fucked like bunnies, and I didn’t get any sleep at all, what with all that goodbye sex.”
“Right,” I say dryly. “I should have known.”
I take another sip of my wine and shake my head. “You go on. I’m going to stay out here and watch the stars a bit longer.” I glance once again at my phone, just as I’ve been doing all evening, but there are no emails or texts from Damien.
“The longer he works, the less stressed he’ll be about playing hooky tomorrow,” Jamie says sagely.
I nod, knowing she’s right but still wishing Damien was home with me.
“Night, Nicholas,” she says.
“Night, James,” I return, answering in kind with our childhood nicknames for each other.
She heads back inside for the guest suite, and I look up at the sky, smiling when I see a shooting star streak across the moonless night. Once again, I crave Damien beside me, but this time when I turn to my phone, I hear a rustling come over the speaker. The video component of the monitor isn’t working—I’d meant to fix it today and forgot—but it doesn’t matter. Either our cat, Sunshine, is settling in at the foot of the bed, or Lara has kicked her blanket off.
Since it’s time for me to head up to bed anyway, I get up, then return to our third floor bedroom. We’ve converted the guest room behind it to the girls’ room, and about a month ago we moved Anne’s crib from the master to the room she shares with her sister. That’s where I go now, wanting to check on the girls and the cat before climbing into bed, certain that the sooner I sleep, the sooner Damien will be beside me.
Except he’s already here.
I freeze in the doorway, afraid that he’s heard me. More afraid that my eyes are playing tricks on me. But it’s Damien. He’s sitting in the rocking chair, illuminated by the soft glow of the nightlight, his midnight black hair gleaming. He’s holding Lara in his arms, his hands cupping her sleeping head. And though he’s facing the window, I can see most of him. And I know his face well enough to recognize his expression. Pain. Sadness. Maybe even desperation.
My heart hitches, and I gasp, the noise overly loud in the otherwise silent room.
I lift my fingers to my mouth, as if that will call back the sound, but it’s too late. Damien looks up, and though the pain still lingers on his face, his dual-colored eyes reflect so much love and tenderness that I have to reach out for the doorframe to steady myself.
Slowly, his mouth curves into a smile that fills me up, erasing the sadness on his gorgeous features. He holds out his hand, and I go to him, craving his touch. The reassurance that all is well.
But as I walk toward my husband, this man I love with all my heart, I glimpse the lingering shadows in his eyes, and I can’t shake the cold blanket of fear that settles over my shoulders when I slide my hand into Damien’s.