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Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(6)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(6)
Author: J. Kenner

“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.”

Oh.

“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.

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