Stark Ever After Novella 3
I never imagined that anything could top our honeymoon, but life as Mrs. Damien Stark is sweeter than any fantasy. We are forever bound by our love and our desire. His touch is my greatest treasure—and is purely mine alone.
Yet no matter where we go, the ghosts of our pasts follow. We can’t escape our secrets, or the people who desperately want to bring us down. Even on Valentine’s Day, neither of us is safe.
I’ll do whatever it takes to protect Damien, to fulfill his every need. His kiss is my calling, his passion my truest bliss. The dangers we face, we now face together—and nothing can make me run.
Play My Game is intended for mature audiences.
About this StoryPrimary Characters Damien Stark Nichole "Nikki" Fairchild (Stark) Secondary Characters Jackson Steele Eleanor "Sylvia" Brooks Jamie Archer Series Stark Ever After Novellas Place in Series Story #3.3 Genre Contemporary Romance
Sunlight pours into the kitchen from the east-facing windows, and through the open glass doors on the west side of the house, I can hear the rhythmic pounding of the Pacific as it batters the Malibu shore.
It is just past seven on a Sunday morning in February, and though I had awakened with both a smile and a plan, the smile is fading and my plan is floundering. I fear that it is time to face the terrible, horrible, inescapable truth—I can’t cook my way out of a paper bag. And my plan to treat my husband to breakfast in bed is crashing and burning.
Or maybe just burning, I amend, as I realize that my waffles are doing just that.
I use the built-in handle to flip the waffle iron over, then open the top with the tines of a fork.
The thing inside doesn’t resemble any food product I’ve ever seen. It’s black and bumpy and looks vaguely like the underside of a hiking shoe.
“Well, shit,” I say, then add on an even more colorful string of curses when I realize that the eggs are burning and that smoke from the bacon is going to set off the fire alarms any second now.
I lunge sideways toward the stove and hit the button for the vent, then narrow my eyes toward the ceiling, daring the alarm to start screeching. Because even if breakfast consists of black coffee and dry toast, I am going to manage it. And nothing—not a smoke alarm, not the scent of burning batter, not even my muttered curses—is going to roust my husband of almost three weeks out of bed before I am ready to surprise him.
A heartbeat later, I know just how wrong I am.
I have not yet turned around, but I don’t have to. I know that he is awake, and I know that he is standing behind me. I didn’t hear him approach. I didn’t catch his scent. There is nothing tangible to announce his presence to me. But that doesn’t matter.
I simply know.
Maybe it’s a shift in the density of the air.
Maybe it’s the way that the heat from his body makes the molecules around him spin faster.
Maybe it is the simple fact that he is Damien Stark, my husband, my love, and I could no more be unaware of his presence than I am of my own body.
For a moment, I simply stand there, my back still to him. I had wanted to surprise him, and so I will admit to a small tingle of disappointment. But that is quickly conquered by the desire to see him. To savor him. To let the image of him that fills my mind now fill my reality.
I turn slowly to find him leaning against the half-wall that separates the third floor kitchen from the rest of the open area. He is wearing a pair of thin gray sweatpants tied loosely at his hips and absolutely nothing else. His athlete’s body glows with a lingering tan, courtesy of the island that was the last stop of our honeymoon, and the light on his burnished skin highlights the sculpted planes of his chest and abdomen.
Damien’s prowess in business came after his fame as a professional tennis player, and looking at him, it is easy to see how he excelled at both. He is power and strength and beauty combined, and I stand like an idiot, absorbing the sight of him, then sigh with the same kind of full, sensual pleasure brought on by a sunset or a symphony or the stars filling a country sky. Damien Stark is a feast for the eyes, a concerto for the senses. And though I know him intimately—though he is mine, and I am his—I still go weak at the sight of him.
“This is an exceptionally nice sight to wake up to.” His eyes skim over my inappropriate cooking attire. Bare feet, one of his dress shirts, and a white apron with a rather unoriginal Kiss the Cook logo.
“Funny. I was just thinking the same thing.” That’s an exaggeration, because the truth is that I’m having a hard time thinking at all. Or, rather, my thoughts are all primal in nature. Need. Want. Take.
He closes the distance between us in three long strides, then slides his arm around my waist. His grin warms me like sunshine, but when he pulls me to him and closes his mouth over mine, I am warmed by a much more dangerous kind of heat. “Good morning, wife.”
My lips tingle from the intensity of his greeting, but I respond in kind, loving the way these words sound. “Good morning, husband.”
He trails his fingertip along my jawline. “You have batter on your face,” he says, before slipping his finger in his mouth. “Tasty.”
I roll my eyes as he leans in to kiss my ear.
“And flour in your hair.”
“I would have managed eventually,” I say. “You’re the one who got out of bed and spoiled my surprise.”
He glances behind me to the brick of a waffle. “Believe me, I’m surprised.”
“Careful, mister,” I say, but I’m laughing. We both know that my cooking skills are non-existent.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Damien says. “And I like this thought very, very much.”
He pulls me in for another long, slow kiss. The kind that makes me think that getting up early on a Sunday morning was really not one of my more stellar ideas.
“I know how to fix this,“ Damien says.
“Does it involve getting naked and going back to bed, and you assuring me that you didn’t marry me for my culinary skills?”
“Actually, no, though I think that should definitely be added to the day’s activities.”
“Oh, really?” I lean closer, relishing the way his arms tighten around me, pulling me against him so that I can feel him hot and hard and close. “And what else is on the agenda?”
He slides one hand down over his shirt until he finds my bare thigh, then slowly trails his fingers up, under the light cotton. “It’s our last day before we get back to the real world.” His voice is as soft as his caress, and I moan softly as his hand moves between my thighs, and his fingers stroke and tease me. “I want to spend it making love to my wife. Touching her. Caressing her. Burying myself deep inside her.”
My knees are weak, and it’s a good thing that Damien is holding me up. “I approve of your plan for the day. I approve so much, in fact, that I think we should get started on that right now.”
The tip of his tongue traces the curve of my ear, sending shivers racing through me. “But first, we’re going to go get breakfast.”
It takes a moment for my fuzzy brain to register his words. “Go?”
“I told you. I can fix this.” He kisses me lightly, then releases me. I sigh in disappointment at the loss of contact even as Damien nods at the rather unappetizing mess I’ve made in the kitchen. “Pastries and coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice. After all, we’ll need energy to survive the rest of the day I have planned.”
“I like the sound of that,” I admit. We’ve been back home from our honeymoon for a few days, but neither one of us has gone back to work officially yet. I’ve done some coding at home, but not much. Just minor tweaking of a few of my smartphone apps. And Damien, of course, has fielded dozens of phone calls and read god only knows how many emails. But considering all he usually handles in the course of running the universe, his work activities over the last several weeks have been nonexistent by comparison.
He takes my hand to lead me out of the kitchen and toward the bedroom, then pauses in front of the stack of cat food that I’ve moved from the pantry to the counter.
“Please tell me that’s not your secret ingredient.”
I know he expects me to laugh, but I just can’t manage it. Instead I lift a shoulder. “I’m going to box it up to take to Jamie.”
Damien presses a soft kiss to the top of my head, obviously understanding my mood. “I know, baby. I miss the fluff ball, too.”
Technically, Lady Meow Meow belongs to both Jamie and me. More technically, she belongs to Jamie, who was the one who actually rescued her from the shelter when she was a one month old ball of white fur. I’d taken temporary custody when Jamie rented out her condo and set off for Texas to get her shit together.
That didn’t work out as planned, though. Texas turned out to be more of a pitstop than a relocation, and not long after she’d moved in with her parents, she was back in LA. She’d come for my wedding. She’d stayed because of Ryan Hunter, Damien’s security chief, who as far as I can tell is head over heels for her. And the feeling, thank goodness, is mutual.
Now, it’s the two of them and the cat living in the tiny Venice beach house that Ryan has rented for years. According to Jamie, it’s a temporary arrangement until her tenant moves out in a few months. Then she’ll move back to the condo.
She hasn’t said as much, but I expect that Ryan will go with her. We had drinks with them the day after we got back to California, I’ve seen the way he looks at her. More important, I’ve heard the way she talks about him. And I couldn’t be happier for both of them.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad about losing the cat.
I tilt my head back and smile up at Damien. “I’m fine. It’s all fine. I just saw all the food in the pantry and it made me sad. Besides, it gives me an excuse to have lunch with Jamie,” I add with a devious lilt in my voice. “I haven’t seen her alone since we got back, and I have to fill her in on just how spectacular our honeymoon was.”
Damien laughs. “Two best friends discussing a honeymoon. Why do I feel like I’m facing a performance review?”
My grin is pure wickedness. “Don’t worry, Mr. Stark. As always, you scored a perfect ten.”
He kisses me again, long and lingering, then pulls me close. I sigh happily and lean against him, trying as always to absorb the fact that this is my life now. He is my life now.
“I love you,” I say softly, then feel the tightening of his arms around me in response to my words.
“You’re my everything, Nikki. And I love you desperately.” He takes my hand and leads me back to our bedroom. He tugs the apron over my head, then slowly unbuttons the shirt I am wearing. He eases it off my shoulders, and it falls gently to the floor behind us. I’m naked beneath it, and the material caresses my back as it falls, making me shiver from both the sensuality of the moment and in anticipation of Damien’s touch.
He doesn’t disappoint. He tilts his head down as if to kiss me, but then only brushes his lips across mine in the lightest of touches. I want to protest, but the words die in my throat as he moves to trail kisses down my body. The curve of my neck. The sensitive skin along my collar bone.
He pauses at my breast long enough to tease my nipple with his tongue. It is as if he has opened a conduit, and threads of electricity go racing through me, making my nipples tighten with need and my clit throb with demand. I close my eyes and part my lips, concentrating on breathing. On not losing all control and begging him to just take me right there.
But then his kisses move lower, and his tongue dances down my abdomen, then over my pubic bone, and then—oh, dear god—his tongue flicks over my clit, and I have to reach back and grab the iron footboard of our bed in order to remain upright.
I spread my legs, wanting and expecting more, but he pulls away, letting his fingers trail sensually up my body as he stands. I am gasping. Hot and needy. But when I reach out and brush my fingers over the erection that is straining against those goddamn sexy sweatpants, Damien just takes a step back and shakes his head. “Later,”he says, making the word sound like both torture and a promise.
“Christ, Damien. How am I supposed to do anything today other than want you?”
“Sweetheart, there’s nothing else today that you need to be doing.”
I take a moment to gather myself while he heads into the bathroom. I find him in the closet, where he hands me a pair of capris and my favorite light sweater.
“I should grab a shower,” I protest as I watch Damien slide into a pair of jeans and a threadbare Wimbledon T-shirt.
“Casual Sunday morning,” he says. “And you look amazing as always. Besides,” he adds with a wicked gleam in his eye, “if you want a shower later, I’ll be happy to help you out. Make sure you get very thoroughly clean.”
“I bet you would.” And though I’m laughing, I already know that’s an offer I absolutely will not refuse.
We’re both hungry, and so we drive to the Upper Crust, a charming local bakery about a mile up the beach. It’s one of my favorite places in Malibu, and while Damien orders, I find a table on the wooden deck with a wide-open view of the ocean.
Damien’s house—our house—has an equally stunning view, but is set much further back from the beach. One thing that I love about the bakery is that it is built practically on top of the dunes, so that all you have to do is descend the stairs at the back of the deck to be on the sand.
I mention that to Damien when he returns with big mugs of coffee and two flaky chocolate croissants.
“Then we’ll build a bungalow right at the edge of the property. I’ll talk to Nathan about drawing up plans,” he adds, referring to Nathan Dean, the architect who designed the main house.
I gape at him. “I was just making conversation.”
He looks almost confused. “So you wouldn’t like that? I would.” He reaches out to wipe a stray bit of chocolate from the corner of my mouth, then licks his fingertip. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to strip you naked on that beach, and yet I had to wait until we were all the way up the hill. But if there was a conveniently located bungalow …”
I shake my head in mock exasperation. “Clearly I’m going to have to watch what I say around you, Mr. Stark. I mean, what if I’d said that I wanted a pied a terre on the moon?”
“I’m certain that can be arranged.” He twines his fingers with mine, then kisses my knuckles. “I think this is my favorite part of being married.”
“Spoiling my wife.”
I only smile. As ridiculous as Damien building a bungalow because of an offhand comment might be, I can’t deny that it makes me feel all warm and gooey inside. Then again, simply being with the man makes me feel that way.
“Do you want another?” I ask, nodding at his chocolate-stained plate.
“Offering to wait on me?”
“Anything you want,” I say. “Anything you need.”
He squeezes my hand. “I have everything I need.”
My smile is so wide that it almost hurts. Around us, I see other customers watching us and grinning, too, as if our passion is infectious. I recognize a few as neighbors, who undoubtedly know that we are newlyweds. Then again, considering how much the tabloids and social media report on our every move, I imagine that the whole world knows we’re newlyweds.
I swipe my finger through the chocolate that is left on Damien’s plate, then lift it to his lips. His brows rise ever so slightly, and then he draws my finger in, lightly sucking and sending such sparks of ecstasy through me, that it’s a wonder I don’t moan with pleasure.
When I pull my finger gently away, I can’t help my smile of victory. I’m quite certain that at least someone on this deck has a smartphone and a Twitter account, and that picture will be all over social media within the hour. Normally, that would bother me.
Right now, I not only don’t care, I want it.
I want the world to see us in love. To see the way we look at each other. The way we complete each other.
I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and if I can’t shout it from the rooftops, then I’ll just let the world shout it for me on social media.
“You’re smiling,” Damien says.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Good point.” He stands. “Ready?”
I nod, then start to head for the door into the bakery. He tugs me to a stop and nods for the stairs. “I’ll come back for the car when I go for a run later. Right now, let’s walk home.”
I love Southern California. Although it is technically winter, the temperature is already in the mid-sixties, with the forecast expecting highs in the seventies. I take off my shoes, and Damien does the same, and we walk in the surf, where the water is frigid no matter what the season.
We hold hands and talk about everything and nothing as we walk home. “Hard to believe we’re already into the second week of February,” I say, thinking that we’ve just come back from our honeymoon and now it’s almost Valentine’s Day. I feel a bit like a kid whose birthday is the week before Christmas. “I wasn’t even thinking about the timing when we picked our wedding day.”
“You mean the weather? It’s usually a bit colder this time of year, but it’s always comfortable.”
I glance sideways at him, wondering if he’s really that clueless. His expression, however, is entirely unreadable.
“I just mean—“ I cut myself off, frustrated.
His brow furrows. “What?”
Communication, I think. Marriage is all about communication.
“I was just thinking that our first Valentine’s Day is almost here.”
“Not even close,” he says.
“Um, less than a week. That’s right around the corner.”
I don’t realize that he’s stopped until I’ve gone a few more steps. I turn back. Damien actually looks a little worried, and I confess I’m surprised. This will be our first Valentine’s Day together, and knowing Damien and romance, I’d anticipated him doing it up big. I tell myself it’s stupid to get my feelings hurt, especially since there’s a week to go, and Damien could pull off amazing with only five minutes notice.
Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed. Which is completely and totally unfair, but there you go.
I draw in a breath and plaster on one of my best pageant smiles. “Actually, you’re right,” I say. “As far as you and I are concerned, a week is a practically a lifetime.”
“Nikki. Come here.” His voice is low and apologetic, and I keep my face bland because now I am certain that he forgot. He just … forgot.
People forget things, though, right? Even newlyweds.
Even Damien Stark.
I move into his arms, in part because he asked me to, but also because I want to be close enough to him that if I tilt my head down he won’t see the stupid, foolish, idiotic tears that are starting to well in my eyes.
He slides his hands over my arms, moving them until I’m cupping his ass—along with the small, square box tucked into his back pocket.
“Take it out.” His voice is firm, but I think I hear a faint hint of amusement.
I blink, then do as he asks. It’s a small, white cardboard box, the kind that department stores use to package jewelry. Confused, I look up at Damien, and I no longer wonder if he’s amused. It’s very clear that he is.
I’m starting to feel very foolish, but I do as he asks and gently tug off the lid to reveal a necklace on which hangs a tiny glass bottle. Inside the bottle is a rolled up piece of paper.
I look up at Damien, confused. “It’s lovely.”
“Take out the scroll.”
“Really?” I don’t wait for his reply, but use my fingernails to pull out the tiny cork. The paper is harder to get out, but Damien fishes a little army knife out of his front pocket, then passes the tiny pair of tweezers to me. I realize as he does that he’d brought the knife in anticipation of this moment.
Even with the tweezers, it takes some skill to fish out the paper. I finally manage, though, and I unscroll it, then squint at the tiny writing.
For my wife for Valentine’s Day,
A proposition, if I may —
Three clues for you,
You know what to do —
And if you want your present to claim,
You’re going to have to play my game
Now here’s the clue that I speak of:
Tell me, darling Nikki, what is sweeter than Love?
“Damien.” My voice is soft, muted by the happy, astounded tears that have clogged my throat.
“I can’t claim to be a poet,” Damien says, though I think the poem is charming, and all the more wonderful because Damien wrote it.
He hooks his finger under my chin and tilts my head up so that there is no way I can hide my tear-filled eyes.“Three clues. Six days. I think you’ll make it.”
My heart has swollen so much it seems to fill my chest, cutting off my ability to breathe. “You didn’t forget.”
The softness I see in his eyes just about slays me. “Oh, baby. I could sooner forget my own name than our first Valentine’s Day.”
“I love you.” The words seem thin compared to the emotion that pours through me.
“And I you. But Nikki,” he adds, and now his voice takes on a harder edge, belied only by the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. “You doubted me. I think that deserves a punishment.”
I cock my head, wary, then squeal when he smacks my bottom. I laugh, and take off toward the house at a run.But not too fast. After all, I’m hoping that Damien will catch me.