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Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(12)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(12)
Author: J. Kenner

Sure enough, my eyes find Damien Stark right away. He’s no longer with Audrey Hepburn. Now he’s talking with a short, balding man. He’s focused and attentive. But his head lifts and his eyes find me.

And in that singular moment, I know that if he asked me to blow off my friend and stay in the room with him, I would do it.

Damn him, and damn me, but I would stay with Damien Stark.

5

I wear Ollie’s jacket and hold my shoes by the straps as we walk along the private beach behind Evelyn’s house. I’m certain we’re not supposed to be out here, but I don’t care. I swing my foot through the water gaily, sending a spray of sea drops scattering. It feels mischievous. It feels good.

“How’s Courtney?” I ask. “Is she glad you’re back?” That’s a dangerous question where Ollie is concerned. Courtney is his on-again/off-again girlfriend. “On again” because she’s amazing and Ollie would be an idiot to do something stupid and screw it up. “Off again” because Ollie has crossed that idiot line more than once.

“She’s engaged,” he says.

“Oh.” I can’t keep the disappointment out of my voice. I should be consoling and tell Ollie he’ll find someone else amazing, but all I can think is that he’s screwed up.

Suddenly, he’s laughing. “To me, doofus.”

“Oh, thank God!” I bump him playfully with my shoulder. “I thought you’d blown it.”

His expression turns serious. “I almost did. New York was hard. Being away from her. Being tempted. But no more. She’s the only woman for me. Damn, Nik. How did I manage to get her?”

“Because you’re a great guy.”

“I’m fucked up, and you know it.”

“Everyone’s a little fucked up, but Courtney sees the guy underneath. And she loves you.”

“She does,” he says with a grin. “It amazes me every day, but it’s true. She really does.” He eyes me sideways. “Speaking of fucked up, how are you really doing?”

I pull his jacket tighter around me. “I’m great. I already told you.” I stop walking and dig my toes into the sand. The waves come in and swoosh over my bare feet before rushing out again, leaving me sinking a bit, the ground shifting under me.

Beside me, Ollie just gives me that look. Like he knows all my secrets, and I frown because it’s true.

I shrug. “It’s easier now. College was fucked up for a while, but it got better.” I shoot him a smile because he’d been a big part of making it get better. “And now, I don’t know. But it feels good being away from Texas. Really, I’m doing fine.” I shrug again. I don’t want to talk right now.

I turn around and start walking. “We should get back.”

He nods and falls in step beside me. We walk silently for a while, the lights of Evelyn’s house growing closer. The sound of the ocean fills the space between us. It’s deep and rhythmic and I feel like I could get lost in it. Like maybe I already am a little lost.

We walk about fifty more yards, then he pauses. “So how do you feel about tuxedos?” he asks, as if it’s the most normal question in the world.

“I feel good about them,” I say. “Tuxedos are a time-honored tradition in the world of formal wear. I have to take points off for practicality, though. Hard to surf in a tux. Doable, but hard.”

He laughs. “I want you to be my best man,” he says, and I get a little lump in my throat. “Courtney’s cool with it,” he continues, “but she thinks the pictures will look better if you wear a tux. You know, the guy side in penguin suits, the girl side in silk and satin. What do you say?”

I hug myself and blink back tears. “I love you. You know that, right?”

“That’s why I’m asking. It was either that or marry you, and I think the second option would piss Courtney off.” He watches me, obviously expecting me to laugh. When I don’t, his expression softens. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being happy for me.”

“I am,” I say, but I’m talking from behind my Social Nikki smile. The truth is that things are changing fast, and I don’t want Ollie changing, too. He’s been my rock for too long. What will happen to me if that rock suddenly shifts?

But I’m not being fair and I know it.

I start walking again.

“Nik?”

I wipe away an errant tear. “Ignore me. I’m just being emotional and weird. Girls and weddings, right?”

“Nothing’s changing, Nik,” he says, because he’s tagged the hormonal excuse for the bullshit it is. “Anything you need, anytime. Courtney won’t mind.”

Fear knifes through me. “She doesn’t know about—”

“Of course not. I mean, she knows about Ashley,” he says, but that’s fair. He and Courtney had been dating when my sister’s unexpected suicide had completely shattered me. She’d been more than a sister to me—she’d been my escape from the life my mother molded for me, and even though she’d already gotten married and moved away when she died, the loss had sent me spiraling down. Jamie and Ollie had been my life rafts, so of course he’d talked about it with Courtney.

“I only told Courtney that she’d died and you were grieving,” Ollie says urgently. “You know I’d never share your secrets.”

My relief is so intense I don’t even feel guilty for thinking that Ollie would betray my confidence.

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