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Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(7)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(7)
Author: J. Kenner

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?”

“What?”

“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.

Shit.

He doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. “I believe I’ve shocked you, Ms. Fairchild.”

“Hell yes, you’ve shocked me. What did you expect?”

He doesn’t answer, just tilts his head back and laughs. It’s as if a mask has slipped away, allowing me a glimpse of the real man hidden beneath. I smile, liking that we have this one small thing in common.

“Can anyone join this party?” It’s Carl, and I want desperately to say no.

“How nice to see you again, Mr. Rosenfeld,” Stark says. The mask is firmly back in place.

Carl glances at me, and I can see the question in his eyes. “Excuse me,” I say. “I need to run to the ladies’ room.”

I escape to the cool elegance of Evelyn’s powder room. She’s thoughtfully provided mouthwash and hairspray and even disposable mascara wands. There is a lavender-scented salt scrub on the stone vanity, and I put a spoonful in my hands, then close my eyes and rub, imagining that I’m sloughing off the shell of myself to reveal something bright and shiny and new.

I rinse my hands in warm water, then caress my skin with my fingertips. My hands are soft now. Slick and sensual.

I meet my eyes in the mirror. “No,” I whisper, but my hand slides down to brush the hem of my dress just below my knee. It’s fitted at the bodice and waist, but the skirt is flared, designed to present an enticing little swish when you move.

My fingers dance across my knee, then trail lazily up my inner thigh. I meet my gaze in the mirror, then close my eyes. It’s Stark’s face I want to see. His eyes I imagine watching me from that mirror.

There’s a sensuality in the way my fingers slowly graze my own skin. A lazy eroticism that some other time could build to something hot and explosive. But that’s not where I’m going—that’s what I’m destroying.

I stop when I feel it—the jagged, raised tissue of the five-year-old scar that mars the once-perfect flesh of my inner thigh. I press my fingertips to it, remembering the pain that punctuated that particular wound. That had been the weekend that my sister, Ashley, had died, and I’d just about crumbled under the weight of my grief.

But that’s the past, and I close my eyes tight, my body hot, the scar throbbing beneath my hand.

This time when I open my eyes, all I see is myself. Nikki Fairchild, back in control.

I wrap my restored confidence around me like a blanket and return to the party. Both men look at me as I approach. Stark’s face is unreadable, but Carl isn’t even trying to hide his joy. He looks like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. “Say your goodbyes, Nikki. We’re heading out. Lots to do. Lots to do.”

“What? Now?” I don’t bother to hide my confusion.

“Turns out Mr. Stark’s going to be out of town on Tuesday, so we’re pushing the meeting to tomorrow.”

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