A Stark International Novella
I’ve never been happier than I am with Jackson Steele. But I should know better than anyone that happiness always comes at a price…
My life with Jackson is nothing short of perfection. He is my love, my husband, the one man in all the world who makes me feel alive and whole. Our careers are on track. Our family is growing. And the ghosts of our past have been vanquished – or so I believed.
When a wonderful night of sensuality and passion following a masquerade ball turns dark with the news that haunting, horrible photographs of me have surfaced, my old fears and insecurities threaten to knock me down, and it is only within Jackson’s arms that I find the strength to endure.
But even Jackson’s protection may not be able to save us, because I know my husband well. And he will do whatever it takes—even if it means risking himself—in order to protect our family…
**Includes Steal My Heart!**
Take My Dare is Story # 3.2 in the The Steele Stories (Stark International) series.
Take My Dare - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 11/08/2016 Story Type Novella Primary Characters Jackson Steele Eleanor "Sylvia" Brooks Series The Steele Stories (Stark International) Place in Series Story #3.2 Genre Contemporary Romance
Morning arrives before I’m ready for it, my dreams pushing me from sleep. Not nightmares, thank goodness. Those, I have mostly conquered. Instead, this is a vague dread, a sense of unease, but so amorphous that it dissipates like wisps of clouds when I try to grasp it.
That doesn’t matter, though. I’m certain I know the subject of this dream, the reason behind this pervasive apprehension.
Because this is the day he is being released from prison, paroled early after serving more than two years following his confession of murder. A murder he committed supposedly to protect me, but it was too little too late, and I know damn well that it was not my protection that motivated him, but his own guilt for the hell he put me through when I was a teenager.
I shudder and pull the sheet up to my neck, as if the thin cotton percale will act as armor against my memories. For the last few years, I’ve tried to open my heart to forgive him. To see him as a penitent who performed a noble sacrifice as payment for my goodwill. But nothing he can do will erase the past. Nothing he says can change reality.
He wounded me, and I will forever bear the scars.
Some girls grow up feeling like princesses, their fathers doting on them, telling them that Daddy will always be there. That no boy will ever be quite good enough for Daddy’s little girl. That they are sweet and smart and beautiful and that the world is there for them to conquer. Words spoken with affection and colored by love.
I’ve known those girls, but I was never one of them. My father tossed me into hell, treating me as a pawn. Or, worse, as currency. My parents doted on my brother Ethan, the fragile little prince. And while I adored him, too, I hated the fact that I was never the princess. I was chattel, and I was destroyed, and the scars of my childhood lingered far too long, creeping into my dreams and stealing my confidence.
But that was then.
That was before Jackson.
Jackson Steele, the man who colors my days and enriches my nights. The man who saw the strength in me. Who held my hand as I battled my fears, and who never gave up on me.
The man I love.
The man who is my husband and the father of my children.
I turn automatically to look at his side of the bed, even though I know he’s not there. He was called out of town yesterday morning for an emergency at one of his building sites, and won’t return until early afternoon. I press my palm against his pillow, and for a moment, I let myself mourn his absence, knowing that he’d gone only because I had essentially pushed him out the door, insisting that I would be fine by myself. That today wouldn’t break me.
But I’m not fine, and I hate that the horror of my past has turned me into a liar.
I want him beside me. No, more than that. I need him. Crave him. His touch. His power. His passion.
For so long, I’ve been strong, the worst of my demons battled back. But now my yearning is like a living thing, roused and hungry after a deep hibernation.
I sent Jackson away believing I could handle this without him, and the realization that I was so very wrong makes me feel both small and foolish.
Stop. Dammit, just stop.
With renewed determination, I get out of bed, resolved to shake off the ghosts that are clinging so tenaciously to me this morning.
I move the short distance from the bed to the glass panels that make up the western-most wall of our house in the Pacific Palisades. A glorious Friday morning is just breaking, and I stand there in my short silk nightgown and look out at the vast expanse of manicured lawn and the ocean beyond, watching the vibrant oranges and purples vanquish the pre-dawn gray.
I once told Jackson that I wanted a house in the hills with a rooftop patio, a huge yard, and a view of the ocean. During the day, I wanted to watch the boats as they disappeared beyond the horizon, and at night, I wanted to sit on that patio under an infinite blanket of stars and contemplate the silver moonlight that danced on the cresting waves.
He’d listened to every word, understood every dream. Then he kissed me and told me he’d build me a castle under the stars.
And he did. He really did.
Of course, the fact that he’s one of the most famous and successful architects alive helped a bit, and I’d watched as the abstract ideas I’d shared with him sparked a wonderland of possibilities. As smudges on paper became trusses and beams. As dreams became real.
I think that is one of the things I love most about him—the power he has to lasso infinity. To bring imagination to its knees and craft something beautiful from nothing more tangible than the illusive flicker of an idea.
He may have built this house for me, but together we made it a home.
And in point of fact, I’m still not the princess of this castle. That, however, is fine by me.
I turn back to face the interior of the room, smiling as my gaze lands on the tousle-haired little girl curled up in the oversized armchair. She’s the real princess, and right now she’s sound asleep beneath her favorite blanket, her thumb in her mouth and her dog, Fred, curled up on the rug in front of the chair. Veronica Amelia Steele who, like her father, has stolen my heart completely.
This early in the morning, I’m not surprised she’s still asleep. She’s staying home from kindergarten today, and so I’d let her play past her bedtime. I’m also not surprised she’s in that chair. Though she’d fallen asleep on her father’s side of the bed after begging three times for “just one more chapter” from her favorite Magic Treehouse book, she hadn’t stayed in the bed. She’s adopted the comfy chair as her own private domain, and sometime during the night she moved there as she so often does.
As I watch her sleep, Fred raises his head. He’s part corgi and part beagle, with ears that seem just a little too large and a tail that never stops wagging. His mouth opens in a wide yawn, and he turns toward Ronnie before looking back at me, his head cocked as if asking, Now what?
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “Let her sleep. I’m going to go check on the baby.”
As if he understands, his head drops down onto his paws, and I leave him to stand sentry over my daughter. I grab the portable baby monitor off the dresser before I pad barefoot down the hall. Ours is the only bedroom on this floor, but there is also a small den that we’ve turned into a temporary nursery for Jeffery, the other man in my life. He’s already a year old, and it amazes me how quickly the days have gone by. Once upon a time, I’d been crippled by the fear of failing as a parent. Now, I can’t imagine life without my kids.
I reach the nursery, but hesitate before turning the knob. As much as seeing his sweet face will brighten my morning, I can’t deny the allure of a few more minutes of peace—a very rare commodity in our house these days. Jeffrey rarely sleeps past six, but even though it’s already six-thirty, I know from the silence of the baby monitor that he hasn’t stirred. Open that door, and it’ll be all over. But if I go downstairs to the kitchen, I just might have a few quiet moments with my coffee on the back patio before the day begins.
“Soon, little man,” I whisper, then back slowly away and move eagerly toward the stairs.
The house is shaped like an H, with the crossbar being the one story section. It features our kitchen, two living areas, the library, and a small gym. The entire western-facing wall is made of sliding glass panels that can be pushed to the side, turning that section into indoor-outdoor living space. The really cool thing about the crossbar is that it forms the foundation for my rooftop patio. A decadent living space with comfortable outdoor furniture, an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, and a narrow infinity pool.
The uprights of the H contain the home’s bedrooms. The kids’ and two guest rooms on the ground floor of the southern side with a media room and playroom above them, and Jackson and I on the northern side. Our bedroom and the den-turned-nursery take up the top floor, and our connecting offices fill the lower level.
An exterior staircase spirals down from the balcony off the master bedroom to the rooftop patio, then continues down to the first floor and the flagstone sitting area that flows into the manicured yard. This morning, I forgo those exterior steps in favor of the interior staircase that leads directly to the alcove between the kitchen and breakfast area.
I move slowly and quietly—because now that coffee is on my mind, I’m even more careful not to wake the baby—but I freeze the moment the breakfast area comes into view, my hand flying to my mouth to stifle a surprised little gasp.
He’s right there, right in front of me at the breakfast table in threadbare jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He’s cradling our son in his lap, his focus entirely on Jeffery as he holds the bottle stable for our sleepy little man.
He hasn’t shaved and his clothes are rumpled. I’m guessing he hasn’t slept since he left me yesterday, and I know how little sleep he got the night before that. It’s clear he’s utterly exhausted, and yet there is such a look of tenderness on his face that it makes me want to weep.
For a moment, I stand perfectly still watching him, his dark head bent over the equally dark tufts of our son’s hair. The hint of copper in Jackson’s hair catches the dim light from the kitchen, making the scene almost ethereal. I can’t see either of their eyes, but I don’t need to. I know Jeffery’s eyes are as blue as his father’s, but his are the innocent blue of the sky, whereas Jackson’s change hues along with his mood. Corporate steel. Arctic ice. Caribbean heat.
I need all facets of the man right now. His cool reason to tell me that I’m going to be fine today. His passionate heat so that I can share his strength and believe it.
I shift a bit, suddenly impatient.
I’m certain I made no sound, and yet it doesn’t matter. He looks up and sees me, and I watch as his smile erases the lines of exhaustion from his face.
I start to move toward him, but he shakes his head, the movement so small I almost miss it. He glances down, and I realize that Jeffery has fallen asleep. Gently, my husband tugs the bottle out of his little hands and puts it on the table. Then he lifts a finger to his lips, and I nod in understanding.
He stands, the baby against his shoulder, then moves toward me as he rubs Jeffery’s back. His smile is both sensual and mischievous, and he cocks his head, signaling for me to follow as he goes back up the stairs.
I do, then stand by his side as he returns Jeffery to his crib. The baby stretches, his little hands curling into fists as his feet kick out, stretching the material of his Winnie-the-Pooh footie pajamas. He makes a snuffling noise, and for a moment, I think he might wake. Then his thumb finds his mouth and he settles, content and safe and loved.
Jackson reaches for my hand, and we walk quietly out of the room. When we reach the hall, he takes one last look, closes the door, and then pulls me roughly to him.
“You’re here,” I whisper, the complex depth of my happiness and relief camouflaged by the simplicity of my words. “Why are you here?”
“Oh, baby,” he murmurs, pulling me into his arms. “You need me. Where else would I possibly be?”