Release Me - J. Kenner

Release Me

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Stark Saga Book 1

For fans of Fifty Shades of Grey and Bared to You comes an emotionally charged romance between a powerful man who’s never heard “no” and a fiery woman who says “yes” on her own terms.

He was the one man I couldn’t avoid. And the one man I couldn’t resist.

Damien Stark could have his way with any woman. He was sexy, confident, and commanding: Anything he wanted, he got. And what he wanted was me.Our attraction was unmistakable, almost beyond control, but as much as I ached to be his, I feared the pressures of his demands. Submitting to Damien meant I had to bare the darkest truth about my past—and risk breaking us apart.

But Damien was haunted, too. And as our passion came to obsess us both, his secrets threatened to destroy him—and us—forever.

Bonus: This edition includes excerpts from J. Kenner’s Claim Me and Say My Name.

Release Me is intended for mature audiences.

Release Me is Story # 1 in the
International Editions  

About this Story

Publication Date 01/01/2013 Story Type Book Primary Characters Damien Stark Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Secondary Characters Ryan Hunter Jamie Archer Series Stark Saga - Damien & Nikki Place in Series Story #1 Genre Contemporary Romance

Excerpt

Read the first three chapters!

 

1

A cool ocean breeze caresses my bare shoulders, and I shiver, wishing I’d taken my roommate’s advice and brought a shawl with me tonight. I arrived in Los Angeles only four days ago, and I haven’t yet adjusted to the concept of summer temperatures changing with the setting of the sun. In Dallas, June is hot, July is hotter, and August is hell.

Not so in California, at least not by the beach. LA Lesson Number One: Always carry a sweater if you’ll be out after dark.

Of course, I could leave the balcony and go back inside to the party. Mingle with the millionaires. Chat up the celebrities. Gaze dutifully at the paintings. It is a gala art opening, after all, and my boss brought me here to meet and greet and charm and chat. Not to lust over the panorama that is coming alive in front of me. Bloodred clouds bursting against the pale orange sky. Blue-gray waves shimmering with dappled gold.

I press my hands against the balcony rail and lean forward, drawn to the intense, unreachable beauty of the setting sun. I regret that I didn’t bring the battered Nikon I’ve had since high school. Not that it would have fit in my itty-bitty beaded purse. And a bulky camera bag paired with a little black dress is a big, fat fashion no-no.

But this is my very first Pacific Ocean sunset, and I’m determined to document the moment. I pull out my iPhone and snap a picture.

“Almost makes the paintings inside seem redundant, doesn’t it?” I recognize the throaty, feminine voice and turn to face Evelyn Dodge, retired actress turned agent turned patron of the arts—and my hostess for the evening.

“I’m so sorry. I know I must look like a giddy tourist, but we don’t have sunsets like this in Dallas.”

“Don’t apologize,” she says. “I pay for that view every month when I write the mortgage check. It damn well better be spectacular.”

I laugh, immediately more at ease.

“Hiding out?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re Carl’s new assistant, right?” she asks, referring to my boss of three days.

“Nikki Fairchild.”

“I remember now. Nikki from Texas.” She looks me up and down, and I wonder if she’s disappointed that I don’t have big hair and cowboy boots. “So who does he want you to charm?”

“Charm?” I repeat, as if I don’t know exactly what she means.

She cocks a single brow. “Honey, the man would rather walk on burning coals than come to an art show. He’s fishing for investors and you’re the bait.” She makes a rough noise in the back of her throat. “Don’t worry. I won’t press you to tell me who. And I don’t blame you for hiding out. Carl’s brilliant, but he’s a bit of a prick.”

“It’s the brilliant part I signed on for,” I say, and she barks out a laugh.

The truth is that she’s right about me being the bait. “Wear a cocktail dress,” Carl had said. “Something flirty.”

Seriously?I mean, Seriously?

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I should have told him to wear his own damn cocktail dress. But I didn’t. Because I want this job. I fought to get this job. Carl’s company, C-Squared Technologies, successfully launched three web-based products in the last eighteen months. That track record had caught the industry’s eye, and Carl had been hailed as a man to watch.

More important from my perspective, that meant he was a man to learn from, and I’d prepared for the job interview with an intensity bordering on obsession. Landing the position had been a huge coup for me. So what if he wanted me to wear something flirty? It was a small price to pay.

Shit.

“I need to get back to being the bait,” I say.

“Oh, hell. Now I’ve gone and made you feel either guilty or self-conscious. Don’t be. Let them get liquored up in there first. You catch more flies with alcohol anyway. Trust me. I know.”

She’s holding a pack of cigarettes, and now she taps one out, then extends the pack to me. I shake my head. I love the smell of tobacco—it reminds me of my grandfather—but actually inhaling the smoke does nothing for me.

“I’m too old and set in my ways to quit,” she says. “But God forbid I smoke in my own damn house. I swear, the mob would burn me in effigy. You’re not going to start lecturing me on the dangers of secondhand smoke, are you?”

“No,” I promise.

“Then how about a light?”

I hold up the itty-bitty purse. “One lipstick, a credit card, my driver’s license, and my phone.”

“No condom?”

“I didn’t think it was that kind of party,” I say dryly.

“I knew I liked you.” She glances around the balcony. “What the hell kind of party am I throwing if I don’t even have one goddamn candle on one goddamn table? Well, fuck it.” She puts the unlit cigarette to her mouth and inhales, her eyes closed and her expression rapturous. I can’t help but like her. She wears hardly any makeup, in stark contrast to all the other women here tonight, myself included, and her dress is more of a caftan, the batik pattern as interesting as the woman herself.

She’s what my mother would call a brassy broad—loud, large, opinionated, and self-confident. My mother would hate her. I think she’s awesome.

She drops the unlit cigarette onto the tile and grinds it with the toe of her shoe. Then she signals to one of the catering staff, a girl dressed all in black and carrying a tray of champagne glasses.

The girl fumbles for a minute with the sliding door that opens onto the balcony, and I imagine those flutes tumbling off, breaking against the hard tile, the scattered shards glittering like a wash of diamonds.

I picture myself bending to snatch up a broken stem. I see the raw edge cutting into the soft flesh at the base of my thumb as I squeeze. I watch myself clutching it tighter, drawing strength from the pain, the way some people might try to extract luck from a rabbit’s foot.

The fantasy blurs with memory, jarring me with its potency. It’s fast and powerful, and a little disturbing because I haven’t needed the pain in a long time, and I don’t understand why I’m thinking about it now, when I feel steady and in control.

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I am fine, I think. I am fine, I am fine, I am fine.

“Take one, honey,” Evelyn says easily, holding a flute out to me.

I hesitate, searching her face for signs that my mask has slipped and she’s caught a glimpse of my rawness. But her face is clear and genial.

“No, don’t you argue,” she adds, misinterpreting my hesitation. “I bought a dozen cases and I hate to see good alcohol go to waste. Hell no,” she adds when the girl tries to hand her a flute. “I hate the stuff. Get me a vodka. Straight up. Chilled. Four olives. Hurry up, now. Do you want me to dry up like a leaf and float away?”

The girl shakes her head, looking a bit like a twitchy, frightened rabbit. Possibly one that had sacrificed his foot for someone else’s good luck.

Evelyn’s attention returns to me. “So how do you like LA? What have you seen? Where have you been? Have you bought a map of the stars yet? Dear God, tell me you’re not getting sucked into all that tourist bullshit.”

“Mostly I’ve seen miles of freeway and the inside of my apartment.”

“Well, that’s just sad. Makes me even more glad that Carl dragged your skinny ass all the way out here tonight.”

I’ve put on fifteen welcome pounds since the years when my mother monitored every tiny thing that went in my mouth, and while I’m perfectly happy with my size-eight ass, I wouldn’t describe it as skinny. I know Evelyn means it as a compliment, though, and so I smile. “I’m glad he brought me, too. The paintings really are amazing.”

“Now don’t do that—don’t you go sliding into the polite-conversation routine. No, no,” she says before I can protest. “I’m sure you mean it. Hell, the paintings are wonderful. But you’re getting the flat-eyed look of a girl on her best behavior, and we can’t have that. Not when I was getting to know the real you.”

“Sorry,” I say. “I swear I’m not fading away on you.”

Because I genuinely like her, I don’t tell her that she’s wrong—she hasn’t met the real Nikki Fairchild. She’s met Social Nikki who, much like Malibu Barbie, comes with a complete set of accessories. In my case, it’s not a bikini and a convertible. Instead, I have the Elizabeth Fairchild Guide for Social Gatherings.

My mother’s big on rules. She claims it’s her Southern upbringing. In my weaker moments, I agree. Mostly, I just think she’s a controlling bitch. Since the first time she took me for tea at the Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas at age three, I have had the rules drilled into my head. How to walk, how to talk, how to dress. What to eat, how much to drink, what kinds of jokes to tell.

I have it all down, every trick, every nuance, and I wear my practiced pageant smile like armor against the world. The result being that I don’t think I could truly be myself at a party even if my life depended on it.

This, however, is not something Evelyn needs to know.

“Where exactly are you living?” she asks.

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“Studio City. I’m sharing a condo with my best friend from high school.”

“Straight down the 101 for work and then back home again. No wonder you’ve only seen concrete. Didn’t anyone tell you that you should have taken an apartment on the Westside?”

“Too pricey to go it alone,” I admit, and I can tell that my admission surprises her. When I make the effort—like when I’m Social Nikki—I can’t help but look like I come from money. Probably because I do. Come from it, that is. But that doesn’t mean I brought it with me.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

Evelyn nods sagely, as if my age reveals some secret about me. “You’ll be wanting a place of your own soon enough. You call me when you do and we’ll find you someplace with a view. Not as good as this one, of course, but we can manage something better than a freeway on-ramp.”

“It’s not that bad, I promise.”

“Of course it’s not,” she says in a tone that says the exact opposite. “As for views,” she continues, gesturing toward the now-dark ocean and the sky that’s starting to bloom with stars, “you’re welcome to come back anytime and share mine.”

“I might take you up on that,” I admit. “I’d love to bring a decent camera back here and take a shot or two.”

“It’s an open invitation. I’ll provide the wine and you can provide the entertainment. A young woman loose in the city. Will it be a drama? A rom-com? Not a tragedy, I hope. I love a good cry as much as the next woman, but I like you. You need a happy ending.”

I tense, but Evelyn doesn’t know she’s hit a nerve. That’s why I moved to LA, after all. New life. New story. New Nikki.

I ramp up the Social Nikki smile and lift my champagne flute. “To happy endings. And to this amazing party. I think I’ve kept you from it long enough.”

“Bullshit,” she says. “I’m the one monopolizing you, and we both know it.”

We slip back inside, the buzz of alcohol-fueled conversation replacing the soft calm of the ocean.

“The truth is, I’m a terrible hostess. I do what I want, talk to whoever I want, and if my guests feel slighted they can damn well deal with it.”

I gape. I can almost hear my mother’s cries of horror all the way from Dallas.

“Besides,” she continues, “this party isn’t supposed to be about me. I put together this little shindig to introduce Blaine and his art to the community. He’s the one who should be doing the mingling, not me. I may be fucking him, but I’m not going to baby him.”

Evelyn has completely destroyed my image of how a hostess for the not-to-be-missed social event of the weekend is supposed to behave, and I think I’m a little in love with her for that.

“I haven’t met Blaine yet. That’s him, right?” I point to a tall reed of a man. He is bald, but sports a red goatee. I’m pretty sure it’s not his natural color. A small crowd hums around him, like bees drawing nectar from a flower. His outfit is certainly as bright as one.

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“That’s my little center of attention, all right,” Evelyn says. “The man of the hour. Talented, isn’t he?” Her hand sweeps out to indicate her massive living room. Every wall is covered with paintings. Except for a few benches, whatever furniture was once in the room has been removed and replaced with easels on which more paintings stand.

I suppose technically they are portraits. The models are nudes, but these aren’t like anything you would see in a classical art book. There’s something edgy about them. Something provocative and raw. I can tell that they are expertly conceived and carried out, and yet they disturb me, as if they reveal more about the person viewing the portrait than about the painter or the model.

As far as I can tell, I’m the only one with that reaction. Certainly the crowd around Blaine is glowing. I can hear the gushing praise from here.

“I picked a winner with that one,” Evelyn says. “But let’s see. Who do you want to meet? Rip Carrington and Lyle Tarpin? Those two are guaranteed drama, that’s for damn sure, and your roommate will be jealous as hell if you chat them up.”

“She will?”

Evelyn’s brows arch up. “Rip and Lyle? They’ve been feuding for weeks.” She narrows her eyes at me. “The fiasco about the new season of their sitcom? It’s all over the Internet? You really don’t know them?”

“Sorry,” I say, feeling the need to apologize. “My school schedule was pretty intense. And I’m sure you can imagine what working for Carl is like.”

Speaking of …

I glance around, but I don’t see my boss anywhere.

“That is one serious gap in your education,” Evelyn says. “Culture—and yes, pop culture counts—is just as important as—what did you say you studied?”

“I don’t think I mentioned it. But I have a double major in electrical engineering and computer science.”

“So you’ve got brains and beauty. See? That’s something else we have in common. Gotta say, though, with an education like that, I don’t see why you signed up to be Carl’s secretary.”

I laugh. “I’m not, I swear. Carl was looking for someone with tech experience to work with him on the business side of things, and I was looking for a job where I could learn the business side. Get my feet wet. I think he was a little hesitant to hire me at first—my skills definitely lean toward tech—but I convinced him I’m a fast learner.”

She peers at me. “I smell ambition.”

I lift a shoulder in a casual shrug. “It’s Los Angeles. Isn’t that what this town is all about?”

“Ha! Carl’s lucky he’s got you. It’ll be interesting to see how long he keeps you. But let’s see … who here would intrigue you …?”

She casts about the room, finally pointing to a fifty-something man holding court in a corner. “That’s Charles Maynard,” she says. “I’ve known Charlie for years. Intimidating as hell until you get to know him. But it’s worth it. His clients are either celebrities with name recognition or power brokers with more money than God. Either way, he’s got all the best stories.”

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“He’s a lawyer?”

“With Bender, Twain & McGuire. Very prestigious firm.”

“I know,” I say, happy to show that I’m not entirely ignorant, despite not knowing Rip or Lyle. “One of my closest friends works for the firm. He started here but he’s in their New York office now.”

“Well, come on, then, Texas. I’ll introduce you.” We take one step in that direction, but then Evelyn stops me. Maynard has pulled out his phone, and is shouting instructions at someone. I catch a few well-placed curses and eye Evelyn sideways. She looks unconcerned “He’s a pussycat at heart. Trust me, I’ve worked with him before. Back in my agenting days, we put together more celebrity biopic deals for our clients than I can count. And we fought to keep a few tell-alls off the screen, too.” She shakes her head, as if reliving those glory days, then pats my arm. “Still, we’ll wait ’til he calms down a bit. In the meantime, though …”

She trails off, and the corners of her mouth turn down in a frown as she scans the room again. “I don’t think he’s here yet, but—oh! Yes! Now there’ssomeone you should meet. And if you want to talk views, the house he’s building has one that makes my view look like, well, like yours.” She points toward the entrance hall, but all I see are bobbing heads and haute couture. “He hardly ever accepts invitations, but we go way back,” she says.

I still can’t see who she’s talking about, but then the crowd parts and I see the man in profile. Goose bumps rise on my arms, but I’m not cold. In fact, I’m suddenly very, very warm.

He’s tall and so handsome that the word is almost an insult. But it’s more than that. It’s not his looks, it’s his presence. He commands the room simply by being in it, and I realize that Evelyn and I aren’t the only ones looking at him. The entire crowd has noticed his arrival. He must feel the weight of all those eyes, and yet the attention doesn’t faze him at all. He smiles at the girl with the champagne, takes a glass, and begins to chat casually with a woman who approaches him, a simpering smile stretched across her face.

“Damn that girl,” Evelyn says. “She never did bring me my vodka.”

But I barely hear her. “Damien Stark,” I say. My voice surprises me. It’s little more than breath.

Evelyn’s brows rise so high I notice the movement in my peripheral vision. “Well, how about that?” she says knowingly. “Looks like I guessed right.”

“You did,” I admit. “Mr. Stark is just the man I want to see.”

2

“Damien Stark is the holy grail.” That’s what Carl told me earlier that evening. Right after “Damn, Nikki. You look hot.”

I think he was expecting me to blush and smile and thank him for his kind words. When I didn’t, he cleared his throat and got down to business. “You know who Stark is, right?”

“You saw my resume,” I reminded him. “The fellowship?” I’d been the recipient of the Stark International Science Fellowship for four of my five years at the University of Texas, and those extra dollars every semester had made all the difference in the world to me. Of course, even without a fellowship, you’d have to be from Mars not to know about the man. Only thirty years old, the reclusive former tennis star had taken the millions he’d earned in prizes and endorsements and reinvented himself. His tennis days had been overshadowed by his new identity as an entrepreneur, and Stark’s massive empire raked in billions every year.

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“Right, right,” Carl said, distracted. “Team April is presenting at Stark Applied Technology on Tuesday.” At C-Squared, every product team is named after a month. With only twenty-three employees, though, the company has yet to tap into autumn or winter.

“That’s fabulous,” I said, and I meant it. Inventors, software developers, and eager new business owners practically wet themselves to get an interview with Damien Stark. That Carl had snagged just such an appointment was proof that my hoop-jumping to get this job had been worth it.

“Damn straight,” Carl said. “We’re showing off the beta version of the 3-D training software. Brian and Dave are on point with me,” he added, referring to the two software developers who’d written most of the code for the product. Considering its applications in athletics and Stark Applied Technology’s focus on athletic medicine and training, I had to guess that Carl was about to pitch another winner. “I want you at the meeting with us,” he added, and I managed not to embarrass myself by doing a fist-pump in the air. “Right now, we’re scheduled to meet with Preston Rhodes. Do you know who he is?”

“No.”

“Nobody does. Because Rhodes isa nobody.”

So Carl didn’t have a meeting with Stark, after all. I, however, had a feeling I knew where this conversation was going.

“Pop quiz, Nikki. How does an up-and-coming genius like me get an in-person meeting with a powerhouse like Damien Stark?”

“Networking,” I said. I wasn’t an A-student for nothing.

“And that’s why I hired you.” He tapped his temple, even as his eyes roamed over my dress and lingered at my cleavage. At least he wasn’t so gauche as to actually articulate the basic fact that he was hoping that my tits—rather than his product—would intrigue Stark enough that he’d attend the meeting personally. But honestly, I wasn’t sure my girls were up to the task. I’m easy on the eyes, but I’m more the girl-next-door, America’s-sweetheart type. And I happen to know that Stark goes for the runway supermodel type.

I learned that six years ago when he was still playing tennis and I was still chasing tiaras. He’d been the token celebrity judge at the Miss Tri-County Texas pageant, and though we’d barely exchanged a dozen words at the mid-pageant reception, the encounter was burned into my memory.

I’d parked myself near the buffet and was contemplating the tiny squares of cheesecake, wondering if my mother would smell it on my breath if I ate just one, when he walked up with the kind of bold self-assurance that can seem like arrogance on some men, but on Damien Stark it just seemed sexy as hell. He eyed me first, then the cheesecakes. Then he took two and popped them both in his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, then grinned at me. His unusual eyes, one amber and one almost completely black, seemed to dance with mirth.

I tried to come up with something clever to say and failed miserably. So I just stood there, my polite smile plastered across my face as I wondered if his kiss would give me all the taste and none of the calories.

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Then he leaned closer, and my breath hitched as his proximity increased. “I think we’re kindred spirits, Miss Fairchild.”

“I’m sorry?” Was he talking about the cheesecake? Good God, I hadn’t actually looked jealous when he’d eaten them, had I? The idea was appalling.

“Neither of us wants to be here,” he explained. He tilted his head slightly toward a nearby emergency exit, and I was overcome by the sudden image of him grabbing my hand and taking off running. The clarity of the thought alarmed me. But the certainty that I’d go with him didn’t scare me at all.

“I—oh,” I mumbled.

His eyes crinkled with his smile, and he opened his mouth to speak. I didn’t learn what he had to say, though, because Carmela D’Amato swept over to join us, then linked her arm with his. “Damie, darling.” Her Italian accent was as thick as her dark wavy hair. “Come. We should go, yes?” I’ve never been a big tabloid reader, but it’s hard to avoid celebrity gossip when you’re doing the pageant thing. So I’d seen the headlines and articles that paired the big-shot tennis star with the Italian supermodel.

“Miss Fairchild,” he said with a parting nod, then turned to escort Carmela into the crowd and out of the building. I watched them leave, consoling myself with the thought that there was regret in his eyes as we parted ways. Regret and resignation.

There wasn’t, of course. Why would there be? But that nice little fantasy got me through the rest of the pageant.

And I didn’t say one word about the encounter to Carl. Some things are best played close to the vest. Including how much I’m looking forward to meeting Damien Stark again.

“Come on, Texas,” Evelyn says, pulling me from my thoughts. “Let’s go say howdy.”

I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to find Carl behind me. He sports the kind of grin that suggests he just got laid. I know better. He’s just giddy with the anticipation of getting close to Damien Stark.

Well, me, too.

The crowd has shifted again, blocking my view of the man. I still haven’t seen his face, just his profile, and now I can’t even see that. Evelyn’s leading the way, making forward progress through the crowd despite a few stops and starts to chat with her guests. We’re on the move again when a barrel-chested man in a plaid sport coat shifts to the left, once again revealing Damien Stark.

He is even more magnificent now than he was six years ago. The brashness of youth has been replaced by a mature confidence. He is Jason and Hercules and Perseus—a figure so strong and beautiful and heroic that the blood of the gods must flow through him, because how else could a being so fine exist in this world? His face consists of hard lines and angles that seem sculpted by light and shadows, making him appear both classically gorgeous and undeniably unique. His dark hair absorbs the light as completely as a raven’s wing, but it is not nearly as smooth. Instead, it looks wind-tossed, as if he’s spent the day at sea.

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That hair in contrast with his black tailored trousers and starched white shirt give him a casual elegance, and it’s easy to believe that this man is just as comfortable on a tennis court as he is in a boardroom.

His famous eyes capture my attention. They seem edgy and dangerous and full of dark promises. More important, they are watching me. Following me as I move toward him.

I feel an odd sense of déjà vu as I move steadily across the floor, hyperaware of my body, my posture, the placement of my feet. Foolishly, I feel as if I’m a contestant all over again.

I keep my eyes forward, not looking at his face. I don’t like the nervousness that has crept into my manner. The sense that he can see beneath the armor I wear along with my little black dress.

One step, then another.

I can’t help it; I look straight at him. Our eyes lock, and I swear all the air is sucked from the room. It is my old fantasy come to life, and I am completely lost. The sense of déjà vu vanishes and there’s nothing but this moment, electric and powerful. Sensual.

For all I know, I’ve gone spinning off into space. But no, I’m right there, floor beneath me, walls around me, and Damien Stark’s eyes on mine. I see heat and purpose. And then I see nothing but raw, primal desire so intense I fear that I’ll shatter under the force of it.

Carl takes my elbow, steadying me, and only then do I realize I’d started to stumble. “Are you okay?”

“New shoes. Thanks.” I glance back at Stark, but his eyes have gone flat. His mouth is a thin line. Whatever that was—and what the hell was it?—the moment has passed.

By the time we reach Stark, I’ve almost convinced myself it was my imagination.

I barely process the words as Evelyn introduces Carl. My turn is next, and Carl presses his hand to my shoulder, pushing me subtly forward. His palm is sweating, and it feels clammy against my bare skin. I force myself not to shrug it off.

“Nikki is Carl’s new assistant,” Evelyn says.

I extend my hand. “Nikki Fairchild. It’s a pleasure.” I don’t mention that we’ve met before. Now hardly seems the time to remind him that I once paraded before him in a bathing suit.

“Ms. Fairchild,” he says, ignoring my hand. My stomach twists, but I’m not sure if it’s from nerves, disappointment, or anger. He looks from Carl to Evelyn, pointedly avoiding my eyes. “You’ll have to excuse me. There’s something I need to attend to right away.” And then he’s gone, swallowed up into the crowd as effectively as a magician disappearing in a puff of smoke.

“What the fuck?” Carl says, summing up my sentiments exactly.

Uncharacteristically quiet, Evelyn simply gapes at me, her expressive mouth turned down into a frown.

But I don’t need words to know what she’s thinking. I can easily see that she’s wondering the same thing I am: What just happened?

More important, what the hell did I do wrong?

3

My moment of mortification hangs over the three of us for what feels like an eternity. Then Carl takes my arm and begins to steer me away from Evelyn.

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“Nikki?” Concern blooms in her eyes.

“I—it’s okay,” I say. I feel strangely numb and very confused. Thisis what I’d been looking forward to?

“I mean it, Nikki,” Carl says, as soon as he’s put some distance between us and our hostess. “What the fuck was that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bullshit,” he snaps. “Have you met before? Did you piss him off? Did you apply for a job with him before me? What the hell did you do, Nichole?”

I cringe against the use of my given name. “It’s not me,” I say, because I want that to be the truth. “He’s famous. He’s eccentric. He was rude, but it wasn’t personal. How the hell could it have been?” I can hear my voice rising, and I force myself to tamp it down. To breathe.

I squeeze my left hand into a fist so tight my fingernails cut into my palm. I focus on the pain, on the simple process of breathing. I need to be cool. I need to be calm. I can’t let the Social Nikki facade slip away.

Beside me, Carl runs his fingers through his hair and sucks in a noisy breath. “I need a drink. Come on.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” I am a long way from fine, but what I want right then is to be alone. Or as alone as I can be in a room full of people.

I can see that he wants to argue. I can also see that he hasn’t yet decided what he’s going to do. Approach Stark again? Leave the party and pretend it never happened? “Fine,” he growls. He stalks off, and I can hear his muttered “Shit,” as he disappears into the crowd.

I exhale, the tension in my shoulders slipping away. I head toward the balcony, but stop once I see that my private spot has been discovered. At least eight people mingle there, chatting and smiling. I am not in a chatty, smiley mood.

I veer toward one of the freestanding easels and stare blankly at the painting. It depicts a nude woman kneeling on a hard tile floor. Her arms are raised above her head, her wrists bound by a red ribbon.

The ribbon is attached to a chain that rises vertically out of the painting, and there is tension in her arms, as if she’s tugging downward, trying to get free. Her stomach is smooth, her back arched so that the lines of her rib cage show. Her breasts are small, and the erect nipples and tight brown areolae glow under the artist’s skill.

Her face is not so prominent. It’s tilted away, shrouded in gray. I’m left with the impression that the model is ashamed of her arousal. That she would break free if she could. But she can’t.

She’s trapped there, her pleasure and her shame on display for all the world.

My own skin prickles and I realize that this girl and I have something in common. I’d felt a sensual power crash over me, and I’d reveled in it.

Then Stark had shut it off, as quickly as if he’d flipped a switch. And like that model I was left feeling awkward and ashamed.

Well, fuck him. That twit on the canvas might be embarrassed, but I wasn’t going to be. I’d seen the heat in his eyes, and it had turned me on. Period. End of story. Time to move on.

Release Me - Print Cover

I look hard at the woman on the canvas. She’s weak. I don’t like her, and I don’t like the painting.

I start to move away, my own confidence restored—and I collide with none other than Damien Stark himself.

Well, shit.

His hand slides against my waist in an effort to steady me. I back away quickly, but not before my mind processes the feel of him. He’s lean and hard, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the places where my body collided with his. My palm. My breasts. The curve of my waist tingles from the lingering shock of his touch.

“Ms. Fairchild.” He’s looking straight at me, his eyes neither flat nor cold. I realize that I have stopped breathing.

I clear my throat and flash a polite smile. The kind that quietly says “Fuck off.”

“I owe you an apology.”

Oh.

“Yes,” I say, surprised. “You do.”

I wait, but he says nothing else. Instead, he turns his attention to the painting. “It’s an interesting image. But you would have made a much better model.”

What the …?

“That’s the worst apology I’ve ever heard.”

He indicates the model’s face. “She’s weak,” he says, and I forget all about the apology. I’m too intrigued by the way his words echo my earlier thoughts. “I suppose some people might be drawn to the contrast. Desire and shame. But I prefer something bolder. A more confident sensuality.”

He looks at me as he says this last, and I’m not sure if he’s finally apologizing for snubbing me, complimenting my composure, or being completely inappropriate. I decide to consider his words a compliment and go from there. It may not be the safest approach, but it’s the most flattering.

“I’m delighted you think so,” I say. “But I’m not the model type.”

He takes a step back and with slow deliberation looks me up and down. His inspection seems to last for hours, though it must take only seconds. The air between us crackles, and I want to move toward him, to close the gap between us again. But I stay rooted to the spot.

He lingers for a moment on my lips before finally lifting his head to meet my eyes, and that is when I move. I can’t help it. I’m drawn in by the force and pressure of the tempest building in those damnable eyes.

“No,” he says simply.

At first I’m confused, thinking that he’s protesting my proximity. Then I realize he’s responding to my comment about not being the model type.

“You are,” he continues. “But not like this—splashed across a canvas for all the world to see, belonging to no one and everyone.” His head tilts slightly to the left, as if he’s trying out a new perspective on me. “No,” he murmurs again, but this time he doesn’t elaborate.

I am not prone to blushing, and I’m mortified to realize that my cheeks are burning. For someone who just a few moments ago mentally told this man to fuck off, I am doing a piss-poor job of keeping the upper hand. “I was hoping to have the chance to talk to you this evening,” I say.

Release Me - Print Cover

His brow lifts ever so slightly, giving him an expression of polite amusement. “Oh?”

“I’m one of your fellowship recipients. I wanted to say thank you.”

He doesn’t say a word.

I soldier on. “I worked my way through college, so the fellowship helped tremendously. I don’t think I could have graduated with two degrees if it hadn’t been for the financial help. So thank you.” I still don’t mention the pageant. As far as I’m concerned, Damien Stark and I are deep in the land of the do-over.

“And what are you doing now that you’ve left the hallowed halls of academia?”

He speaks so formally that I know he’s teasing me. I ignore it and answer the question seriously. “I joined the team at C-Squared,” I say. “I’m Carl Rosenfeld’s new assistant.” Evelyn already told him this, but I assume he hadn’t been paying attention.

“I see.”

The way he says it suggests he doesn’t see at all. “Is that a problem?”

“Two degrees. A straight-A average. Glowing recommendations from all your professors. Acceptance to Ph.D. programs at both MIT and Cal Tech.”

I stare at him, baffled. The Stark International Fellowship Committee awards thirty fellowships each year. How the hell can he possibly know so much about my academic career?

“I merely find it interesting that you ended up not leading a product development team but doing gruntwork as the owner’s assistant.”

“I—” I don’t know what to say. I’m still spinning from the surreal nature of this inquisition.

“Are you sleeping with your boss, Ms. Fairchild?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry. Was the question unclear? I asked if you were fucking Carl Rosenfeld.”

“I—no.” I blurt the answer out, because I can’t let that image linger for longer than a second. Immediately, though, I regret speaking. What I should have done was slap his face. What the hellkind of question is that?

“Good,” he says, so crisply and firmly and with such intensity that any thought I have of verbally bitch-slapping him vanishes completely. My thoughts, in fact, have taken a sharp left turn and I am undeniably, unwelcomely turned on. I glare at the woman in the portrait, hating her even more, and not particularly pleased with Damien Stark or myself. I suppose we have something in common, though. At the moment, we’re both picturing me out of my little black dress.

Shit.

He doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. “I believe I’ve shocked you, Ms. Fairchild.”

“Hell yes, you’ve shocked me. What did you expect?”

He doesn’t answer, just tilts his head back and laughs. It’s as if a mask has slipped away, allowing me a glimpse of the real man hidden beneath. I smile, liking that we have this one small thing in common.

“Can anyone join this party?” It’s Carl, and I want desperately to say no.

“How nice to see you again, Mr. Rosenfeld,” Stark says. The mask is firmly back in place.

Carl glances at me, and I can see the question in his eyes. “Excuse me,” I say. “I need to run to the ladies’ room.”

Release Me - Print Cover

I escape to the cool elegance of Evelyn’s powder room. She’s thoughtfully provided mouthwash and hairspray and even disposable mascara wands. There is a lavender-scented salt scrub on the stone vanity, and I put a spoonful in my hands, then close my eyes and rub, imagining that I’m sloughing off the shell of myself to reveal something bright and shiny and new.

I rinse my hands in warm water, then caress my skin with my fingertips. My hands are soft now. Slick and sensual.

I meet my eyes in the mirror. “No,” I whisper, but my hand slides down to brush the hem of my dress just below my knee. It’s fitted at the bodice and waist, but the skirt is flared, designed to present an enticing little swish when you move.

My fingers dance across my knee, then trail lazily up my inner thigh. I meet my gaze in the mirror, then close my eyes. It’s Stark’s face I want to see. His eyes I imagine watching me from that mirror.

There’s a sensuality in the way my fingers slowly graze my own skin. A lazy eroticism that some other time could build to something hot and explosive. But that’s not where I’m going—that’s what I’m destroying.

I stop when I feel it—the jagged, raised tissue of the five-year-old scar that mars the once-perfect flesh of my inner thigh. I press my fingertips to it, remembering the pain that punctuated that particular wound. That had been the weekend that my sister, Ashley, had died, and I’d just about crumbled under the weight of my grief.

But that’s the past, and I close my eyes tight, my body hot, the scar throbbing beneath my hand.

This time when I open my eyes, all I see is myself. Nikki Fairchild, back in control.

I wrap my restored confidence around me like a blanket and return to the party. Both men look at me as I approach. Stark’s face is unreadable, but Carl isn’t even trying to hide his joy. He looks like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. “Say your goodbyes, Nikki. We’re heading out. Lots to do. Lotsto do.”

“What? Now?” I don’t bother to hide my confusion.

“Turns out Mr. Stark’s going to be out of town on Tuesday, so we’re pushing the meeting to tomorrow.”

“Saturday?”

“Is that a problem?” Stark asks me.

“No, of course not, but—”

“He’s attending personally,” Carl says. “Personally,” he repeats, as if I could have missed it the first time.

“Right. I’ll just find Evelyn and say goodnight.” I start to move away, but Stark’s voice draws me back.

“I’d like Ms. Fairchild to stay.”

“What?” Carl speaks, expressing my thought.

“The house I’m building is almost complete. I came here to find a painting for a particular room. I’d like a feminine perspective. I’ll see her home safely, of course.”

“Oh.” Carl looks like he’s going to protest, then thinks better of it. “She’ll be happy to help.”

The hell she will. It’s one thing to wear the dress. It’s another to completely skip the presentation rehearsal because a self-absorbed bazillionaire snaps his fingers and says jump. No matter how hot said bazillionaire might be.

Release Me - Print Cover

But Carl cuts me off before I can form a coherent reply. “We’ll speak tomorrow morning,” he tells me. “The meeting’s at two.”

And then he’s gone and I’m left seething beside a very smug Damien Stark.

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I know exactly who I am, Ms. Fairchild. Do you?”

“Maybe the better question is, who the hell do you think Iam?”

“Are you attracted to me?”

“I—what?” I say, verbally stumbling. His words have knocked me off center, and I struggle to regain my balance. “That is so not the issue.”

The corner of his mouth twitches, and I realize I’ve revealed too much.

“I’m Carl’s assistant,” I say firmly and slowly. “Not yours. And my job description does not include decorating your goddamn house.” I’m not shouting, but my voice is as taut as a wire and my body even more so.

Stark, damn him, appears not only perfectly at ease, but also completely amused. “If your job duties include helping your boss find capital, then you may want to reconsider how you play the game. Insulting potential investors is probably not the best approach.”

A cold stab of fear that I’ve screwed this up cuts through me. “Maybe not,” I say. “But if you’re going to withhold your money because I didn’t roll over and flounce my skirts for you, then you’re not the man the press makes you out to be. The Damien Stark I’ve read about invests in quality. Not in friendships or relationships or because he thinks some poor little inventor needs the deal. The Damien Stark I admire focuses on talent and talent alone. Or is that just public relations?”

I stand straight, ready to endure whatever verbal lashes he’ll whip back at me. I’m not prepared for the response I get.

Stark laughs.

“You’re right,” he says. “I’m not going to invest in C-Squared because I met Carl at a party any more than I’d invest in it because you’re in my bed.”

“Oh.” Once again, my cheeks heat. Once again, he’s knocked me off balance.

“I do, however, want you.”

My mouth is dry. I have to swallow before I can speak. “To help you pick a painting?”

“Yes,” he confirms. “For now.”

I force myself not to wonder about later. “Why?”

“Because I need an honest opinion. Most women on my arm say what they think will make me happy, not what they actually mean.”

“But I’m not on your arm, Mr. Stark.” I let the words hang for a moment. Then I deliberately turn my back and walk away. I can feel him watching me, but I neither stop nor turn around. Slowly, I smile. I even add a little swing to my step. This is my moment of triumph and I intend to savor it.

Except victory isn’t as delicious as I expected. In fact, it’s a little bitter. Because secretly—oh, so secretly—I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be the girl on Damien Stark’s arm.

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