“Not a problem,” Nikki continues easily, and I’m grateful that she cannot hear my thoughts. “Like I said, we want to keep this casual.” We pause at the base of the stairs. “Let me run through who’s here so you’ll know. It’s a small list. Just you two, me and Damien, of course. Then there’s Trent and Aiden—they’re in the real estate division,” she explains to Jackson.

“I’ve met Aiden,” Jackson says. “He was in Damien’s office when I agreed to work on the project.”

“Oh, good,” Nikki says.

“I feel like I should apologize for turning down the Bahamas project. I hope you didn’t think me unforgivably rude.”

She laughs. “Not rude, just honest. And I totally get where you were coming from. Damien’s offered to help me with my own business dozens of times, and I keep saying no. Maybe when I’m more established I’ll think about partnering with one of his subsidiaries, but right now, I want to prove that I can do it on my own. Unlike me, though, you’ve already proven yourself in spades.”

“He has,” I agree, feeling as proud of Jackson’s accomplishments as if I had designed his buildings myself.

“I appreciate the compliment,” he says as we start to climb the stairs. “What is it you do?”

“Software,” she says. “Primarily for portable devices, though I do some web-based apps, too. I’m rolling out one very soon that Damien has his eye on. It’s driving him crazy that I’m not willing to license it to the company just yet,” she adds, aiming a grin at me.

“It’s true,” I say, because Damien has mentioned her software to me on more than one occasion, noting how much it could ease workflow around the office. And every time Nikki says no, I silently applaud her and their marriage. Because in all my experience as Damien’s assistant, I think Nikki is the only person who’s ever successfully told Damien Stark no.

Her and Jackson, I amend, thinking of the Bahamas.

“—since he designed this house,” Nikki is saying.

“Sorry, I zoned out. Nathan Dean’s here?”

“He is. I thought Jackson might enjoy talking to another architect. And Evelyn wraps up the guest list.” She shrugs. “So that’s the lineup. Just a small group of people connected to the resort or Stark Real Estate or Damien personally. I didn’t want it to be overwhelming.”

“Nathan’s a little bit quiet, but a nice guy,” I tell Jackson. I spent a great deal of time on the phone and at meetings with Damien and Nathan during the design and construction process.

“And talented,” Jackson says. “At least if this house is any indication. It’s stunning,” he says to Nikki.

I know he found the outside impressive, because he commented on it as we drove up. The way the house seemed to belong to the hills, enhancing rather than overshadowing the view of the ocean in the distance. The entrance is equally awe inspiring, with a doorway that opens onto a formal living area backed by a wall of glass that reveals the infinity pool beyond. And the broad expanse of stairs acts as a second focal point, directing those staying inside to the third floor where guests are routinely entertained.

“Thanks,” Nikki says. “It was almost complete when I met Damien. I’ll take credit for the furniture and some of the paint colors. But that’s pretty much it.”

“The paint colors are stunning,” Jackson says, making her laugh. And making me smile. I like Nikki a lot. So far, I think, she likes Jackson.

We reach the third floor landing and pause there. To be honest, it’s impossible to climb these stairs and not pause at the top, because what you see upon arrival is so incredible that it takes a moment to catch your breath. The area is huge and designed for entertaining, and from where we stand we can see both the patio—the glass doors are now open to allow a stunning view of the ocean—and the stone fireplace that sits at an angle to the stairs so that it, too, faces the ocean.

That fireplace is the room’s centerpiece, and on it hangs a lifesized nude portrait, the woman’s face turned away to hide her identity. Now, though, thanks to press leaks, most of the world knows that the portrait is of Nikki.

I don’t know the entire story, but I do know that Damien paid a million dollars in exchange for Nikki’s agreement to pose nude. I have my suspicions that there were more terms to their agreement—quite possibly very sensual terms—but unless I ask Nikki outright, I’ll never know for certain.

Even so, I can’t help but see parallels between her relationship with Damien and mine with Jackson. It gives me hope, actually. Because despite all they’ve had to go through, the two of them are the strongest couple I know.


Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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