Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Release Me, Page 2

J. Kenner

  "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."


  "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.

  "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?"


  "Nobody does. Because Rhodes is a 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.

  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.

  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 deja 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 deja 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?


  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.

  "Nikki?" Concern blooms in her eyes.

  "I--it's okay," I say. I feel strangely numb and very confused. This is 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.

  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."


  "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.

  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?"


  "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 hell kind 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.