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Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(2)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(2)
Author: J. Kenner

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.

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.

“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.

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