Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(13)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(13)
Author: J. Kenner

“Looks like we’re not the only ones who wanted to escape the hoopla.” He’s looking toward Evelyn’s house. There are people clustered on the balcony, backlit by the light bursting through the window. But they’re not the subject of Ollie’s comment, and it takes me a second to realize what he sees. When I do, I gasp.

A darkened spiral staircase leads down from the balcony to the weathered boardwalk, and there is a man sitting on the bottom step. I can’t see his face—I can’t see more than a dark shape. But somehow I’m certain who it is.

We approach, and he stands, and I see that I am right.

“Ms. Fairchild,” Stark says, walking forward to meet us. He doesn’t look at Ollie at all. His eyes are wholly on me—burning amber and deep, dangerous black. “I was looking for you.”

“Oh?” I try to sound cool, but I’m anything but. “Why?”

“You’re my responsibility.”

I exhale a bubble of laughter. “I hardly see how. I barely even know you, Mr. Stark.”

“I promised your boss I’d see you safely home.”

Beside me, Ollie steps closer. He clasps my shoulder in a protective gesture. His fingers tighten, and I can feel the pressure even through the thick material of his jacket. “I’m about to head home. I’ll be happy to give Nikki a lift. You can consider your responsibility absolved.”

Without a word, Stark reaches out to me and takes the lapel of Ollie’s jacket between two fingers, as if testing the quality of the material. His hand hovers briefly over the swell of my breast, and I am suddenly aware of how intimate the moment must appear, Ollie and I walking alone on the beach, me wearing his jacket …

I feel an inexplicable need to explain that there’s nothing romantic or sexual between Ollie and me, and it takes a great effort to keep my mouth shut. I tilt my head up to look at Ollie. “That would be great. Are you sure it’s not inconvenient?”

“It’s no problem at all,” he says. His hand is still on my shoulder and he increases the pressure as if urging me on. But there’s nowhere to go, Stark is right there, larger than life, and the air between us is charged. If I move, I think ridiculously, I’ll end up caught in his web. The thought isn’t entirely unpleasant.

“I’m not looking for absolution,” Stark says to Ollie. “But I do need Ms. Fairchild to stay. We have business to discuss.”

I consider arguing, but I also remember his earlier comment—that if I was trying to find investors for Carl, I was doing a craptastic job of it. I tilt my head and nod to Ollie. “It’s okay.”

“You’re sure?” His voice is tight. Concerned.

“Seriously,” I say. “Go on home.”

He hesitates, then nods. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he says, but he’s looking at Stark as he says it. He’s gone into full big-brother mode, and I hear the message under the words. And she better be there and fine or there’s going to be trouble.

My imagination, I realize, is running wild.

He kisses my cheek and starts to head up the spiral staircase.

“Wait,” Stark calls, and Ollie pauses.

I hold my breath, wondering if I’m about to witness some testosterone-laden ritual. But all Stark does is reach out for the shoes that I’m still holding in my right hand. I hand them to him, confused until he steps closer and starts to gently ease me out of Ollie’s jacket.

“It’s okay,” Ollie says. “I’ll get it later.”

But I am already out of the jacket, having moved quickly so that I can recover the distance between me and Stark.

“No need,” Stark says, and his smile is bright and friendly as he hands Ollie the jacket.

Ollie hesitates a nanosecond, then takes it. He slips it on, keeping his eyes on me. “Be careful,” he says, then disappears up the dark, twisting stairs.

Careful? What the fuck?

I glance at Stark to see if he is as bemused as I am, but it’s clear that his thoughts have not lingered on Ollie at all. No, he’s completely focused on me.

I snatch my shoes back. “Do we actually have any business to discuss? Because it seems to me that my business is downtown. With Carl. Preparing for a meeting I’ll be attending in just over sixteen hours.”

“The paintings,” he says easily. “I believe you were going to help me?”

“Your belief system is all screwed up. I recall quite clearly declining your request for help.”

“My mistake. I thought you’d changed your mind after I pointed out that I valued your opinion.”

“You thought I’d changed my mind?” I repeat. “And on what did you base that hypothesis? The way I walked away from you? The way I ignored you?”

He merely quirks a brow, letting me know that all my surreptitious glances toward him and Audrey Hepburn weren’t so surreptitious, after all.

He watches me, probably expecting a pithy comeback, but I’m not going to provide one. At this moment, silence is most definitely the best policy.

I tilt my head up to look at his face. The minimal illumination filtering down from Evelyn’s balcony casts his features in shadows. His eyes, however, seem to absorb the light. The amber one, fiery and hot. The other one black and ringed with molten lava, so dark and deep I feel as though I could fall in and get lost. Windows to the soul, I think and then shiver.

“You’re cold,” he says, then trails a finger down my bare arm. “You have goose bumps.”

Well if I didn’t before, I surely do now.…

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