Take my dare, p.1
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       Take My Dare, p.1

         Part #4 of Stark International Trilogy series by J. Kenner
 
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Take My Dare


  TAKE MY DARE

  by J. Kenner

  Take My Dare

  Copyright (c) 2016 by Julie Kenner Kobo Edition Cover design: Covers by Rogenna Digital ISBN: 978-1-940673-34-9

  Published by Julie Kenner All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author's imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental.

  New York Times bestselling author J. Kenner returns to the smoking hot, emotionally compelling world of the Stark International trilogy that features Jackson Steele, a strong-willed man who goes after what he wants, and Sylvia Brooks, a disciplined woman who's hard to get--and exactly who Jackson needs...

  I've never been happier than I am with Jackson Steele. But I should know better than anyone that happiness always comes at a price ...

  My life with Jackson is nothing short of perfection. He is my love, my husband, the one man in all the world who makes me feel alive and whole. Our careers are on track. Our family is growing. And the ghosts of our past have been vanquished - or so I believed.

  When a wonderful night of sensuality and passion following a masquerade ball turns dark with the news that haunting, horrible photographs of me have surfaced, my old fears and insecurities threaten to knock me down, and it is only within Jackson's arms that I find the strength to endure.

  But even Jackson's protection may not be able to save us, because I know my husband well. And he will do whatever it takes--even if it means risking himself--in order to protect our family...

  Contains a bonus Steele Short Story, Steal My Heart!

  Take My Dare is intended for mature audiences.

  J. Kenner (aka Julie Kenner) is the New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Wall Street Journal and #1 International bestselling author of over seventy novels, novellas and short stories in a variety of genres.

  JK has been praised by Publishers Weekly as an author with a "flair for dialogue and eccentric characterizations" and by RT Bookclub for having "cornered the market on sinfully attractive, dominant antiheroes and the women who swoon for them." A five-time finalist for Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA award, JK took home the first RITA trophy awarded in the category of erotic romance in 2014 for her novel, Claim Me (book 2 of her Stark Trilogy).

  In her previous career as an attorney, JK worked as a lawyer in Southern California and Texas. She currently lives in Central Texas, with her husband, two daughters, and two rather spastic cats.

  Visit JK online at www.jkenner.com

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  Text JKenner to 21000 to subscribe to JK's text alerts Twitter

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  By J. Kenner

  Click here for an updated Printable Booklist

  The Stark Trilogy:

  Release Me

  Claim Me

  Complete Me

  Anchor Me

  Stark Ever After:

  Take Me

  Have Me

  Play My Game

  Seduce Me

  Unwrap Me

  Deepest Kiss

  Entice Me

  Hold Me

  Stark International

  Steele Trilogy:

  Say My Name

  On My Knees

  Under My Skin

  Take My Dare (novella)

  Jamie & Ryan Novellas:

  Tame Me

  Tempt Me

  Dallas & Jane (S.I.N. Trilogy):

  Dirtiest Secret

  Hottest Mess

  Sweetest Taboo

  Most Wanted:

  Wanted

  Heated

  Ignited

  Also by Julie Kenner

  Click here for an updated Printable Booklist

  The Protector (Superhero) Series:

  The Cat's Fancy (prequel)

  Aphrodite's Kiss

  Aphrodite's Passion

  Aphrodite's Secret

  Aphrodite's Flame

  Aphrodite's Embrace (novella)

  Demon Hunting Soccer Mom Series:

  Carpe Demon

  California Demon

  Demons Are Forever

  Deja Demon

  The Demon You Know (short story)

  Demon Ex Machina

  Pax Demonica

  Day of the Demons

  The Dark Pleasures Series:

  Caress of Darkness

  Find Me In Darkness

  Find Me In Pleasure

  Find Me In Passion

  Caress of Pleasure

  The Blood Lily Chronicles:

  Tainted

  Torn

  Turned

  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  About Take My Dare

  About Julie

  By J. Kenner

  Also by Julie Kenner

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Steal My Heart: A Steele Short Story

  Chapter 1

  ++

  Morning arrives before I'm ready for it, my dreams pushing me from sleep. Not nightmares, thank goodness. Those, I have mostly conquered. Instead, this is a vague dread, a sense of unease, but so amorphous that it dissipates like wisps of clouds when I try to grasp it.

  That doesn't matter, though. I'm certain I know the subject of this dream, the reason behind this pervasive apprehension.

  My father.

  Because this is the day he is being released from prison, paroled early after serving more than two years following his confession of murder. A murder he committed supposedly to protect me, but it was too little too late, and I know damn well that it was not my protection that motivated him, but his own guilt for the hell he put me through when I was a teenager.

  I shudder and pull the sheet up to my neck, as if the thin cotton percale will act as armor against my memories. For the last few years, I've tried to open my heart to forgive him. To see him as a penitent who performed a noble sacrifice as payment for my goodwill. But nothing he can do will erase the past. Nothing he says can change reality.

  He wounded me, and I will forever bear the scars.

  Some girls grow up feeling like princesses, their fathers doting on them, telling them that Daddy will always be there. That no boy will ever be quite good enough for Daddy's little girl. That they are sweet and smart and beautiful and that the world is there for them to conquer. Words spoken with affection and colored by love.

  I've known those girls, but I was never one of them. My father tossed me into hell, treating me as a pawn. Or, worse, as currency. My parents doted on my brother Ethan, the fragile little prince. And while I adored him, too, I hated the fact that I was never the princess. I was chattel, and I was destroyed, and the scars of my childhood lingered far too long, creeping into my dreams and stealing my confidence.

  But that was then.

  That was before Jackson.

  Jackson Steele, the man who colors my days and enriches my nights. The man who saw the strength in me. Who held my hand as I battled my fears, and who never gave up on me.

  The man I love.

  The man who is my husband and the father of my children.

&n
bsp; I turn automatically to look at his side of the bed, even though I know he's not there. He was called out of town yesterday morning for an emergency at one of his building sites, and won't return until early afternoon. I press my palm against his pillow, and for a moment, I let myself mourn his absence, knowing that he'd gone only because I had essentially pushed him out the door, insisting that I would be fine by myself. That today wouldn't break me.

  But I'm not fine, and I hate that the horror of my past has turned me into a liar.

  I want him beside me. No, more than that. I need him. Crave him. His touch. His power. His passion.

  For so long, I've been strong, the worst of my demons battled back. But now my yearning is like a living thing, roused and hungry after a deep hibernation.

  I sent Jackson away believing I could handle this without him, and the realization that I was so very wrong makes me feel both small and foolish.

  Stop. Dammit, just stop.

  With renewed determination, I get out of bed, resolved to shake off the ghosts that are clinging so tenaciously to me this morning.

  I move the short distance from the bed to the glass panels that make up the western-most wall of our house in the Pacific Palisades. A glorious Friday morning is just breaking, and I stand there in my short silk nightgown and look out at the vast expanse of manicured lawn and the ocean beyond, watching the vibrant oranges and purples vanquish the pre-dawn gray.

  I once told Jackson that I wanted a house in the hills with a rooftop patio, a huge yard, and a view of the ocean. During the day, I wanted to watch the boats as they disappeared beyond the horizon, and at night, I wanted to sit on that patio under an infinite blanket of stars and contemplate the silver moonlight that danced on the cresting waves.

  He'd listened to every word, understood every dream. Then he kissed me and told me he'd build me a castle under the stars.

  And he did. He really did.

  Of course, the fact that he's one of the most famous and successful architects alive helped a bit, and I'd watched as the abstract ideas I'd shared with him sparked a wonderland of possibilities. As smudges on paper became trusses and beams. As dreams became real.

  I think that is one of the things I love most about him--the power he has to lasso infinity. To bring imagination to its knees and craft something beautiful from nothing more tangible than the illusive flicker of an idea.

  He may have built this house for me, but together we made it a home.

  And in point of fact, I'm still not the princess of this castle. That, however, is fine by me.

  I turn back to face the interior of the room, smiling as my gaze lands on the tousle-haired little girl curled up in the oversized armchair. She's the real princess, and right now she's sound asleep beneath her favorite blanket, her thumb in her mouth and her dog, Fred, curled up on the rug in front of the chair. Veronica Amelia Steele who, like her father, has stolen my heart completely.

  This early in the morning, I'm not surprised she's still asleep. She's staying home from kindergarten today, and so I'd let her play past her bedtime. I'm also not surprised she's in that chair. Though she'd fallen asleep on her father's side of the bed after begging three times for "just one more chapter" from her favorite Magic Treehouse book, she hadn't stayed in the bed. She's adopted the comfy chair as her own private domain, and sometime during the night she moved there as she so often does.

  As I watch her sleep, Fred raises his head. He's part corgi and part beagle, with ears that seem just a little too large and a tail that never stops wagging. His mouth opens in a wide yawn, and he turns toward Ronnie before looking back at me, his head cocked as if asking, Now what?

  "It's okay," I whisper. "Let her sleep. I'm going to go check on the baby."

  As if he understands, his head drops down onto his paws, and I leave him to stand sentry over my daughter. I grab the portable baby monitor off the dresser before I pad barefoot down the hall. Ours is the only bedroom on this floor, but there is also a small den that we've turned into a temporary nursery for Jeffery, the other man in my life. He's already a year old, and it amazes me how quickly the days have gone by. Once upon a time, I'd been crippled by the fear of failing as a parent. Now, I can't imagine life without my kids.

  I reach the nursery, but hesitate before turning the knob. As much as seeing his sweet face will brighten my morning, I can't deny the allure of a few more minutes of peace--a very rare commodity in our house these days. Jeffrey rarely sleeps past six, but even though it's already six-thirty, I know from the silence of the baby monitor that he hasn't stirred. Open that door, and it'll be all over. But if I go downstairs to the kitchen, I just might have a few quiet moments with my coffee on the back patio before the day begins.

  "Soon, little man," I whisper, then back slowly away and move eagerly toward the stairs.

  The house is shaped like an H, with the crossbar being the one story section. It features our kitchen, two living areas, the library, and a small gym. The entire western-facing wall is made of sliding glass panels that can be pushed to the side, turning that section into indoor-outdoor living space. The really cool thing about the crossbar is that it forms the foundation for my rooftop patio. A decadent living space with comfortable outdoor furniture, an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, and a narrow infinity pool.

  The uprights of the H contain the home's bedrooms. The kids' and two guest rooms on the ground floor of the southern side with a media room and playroom above them, and Jackson and I on the northern side. Our bedroom and the den-turned-nursery take up the top floor, and our connecting offices fill the lower level.

  An exterior staircase spirals down from the balcony off the master bedroom to the rooftop patio, then continues down to the first floor and the flagstone sitting area that flows into the manicured yard. This morning, I forgo those exterior steps in favor of the interior staircase that leads directly to the alcove between the kitchen and breakfast area.

  I move slowly and quietly--because now that coffee is on my mind, I'm even more careful not to wake the baby--but I freeze the moment the breakfast area comes into view, my hand flying to my mouth to stifle a surprised little gasp.

  Jackson.

  He's right there, right in front of me at the breakfast table in threadbare jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He's cradling our son in his lap, his focus entirely on Jeffery as he holds the bottle stable for our sleepy little man.

  He hasn't shaved and his clothes are rumpled. I'm guessing he hasn't slept since he left me yesterday, and I know how little sleep he got the night before that. It's clear he's utterly exhausted, and yet there is such a look of tenderness on his face that it makes me want to weep.

  For a moment, I stand perfectly still watching him, his dark head bent over the equally dark tufts of our son's hair. The hint of copper in Jackson's hair catches the dim light from the kitchen, making the scene almost ethereal. I can't see either of their eyes, but I don't need to. I know Jeffery's eyes are as blue as his father's, but his are the innocent blue of the sky, whereas Jackson's change hues along with his mood. Corporate steel. Arctic ice. Caribbean heat.

  I need all facets of the man right now. His cool reason to tell me that I'm going to be fine today. His passionate heat so that I can share his strength and believe it.

  I shift a bit, suddenly impatient.

  I'm certain I made no sound, and yet it doesn't matter. He looks up and sees me, and I watch as his smile erases the lines of exhaustion from his face.

  I start to move toward him, but he shakes his head, the movement so small I almost miss it. He glances down, and I realize that Jeffery has fallen asleep. Gently, my husband tugs the bottle out of his little hands and puts it on the table. Then he lifts a finger to his lips, and I nod in understanding.

  He stands, the baby against his shoulder, then moves toward me as he rubs Jeffery's back. His smile is both sensual and mischievous, and he cocks his head, signaling for me to follow as he goes back up the stairs.

  I do, then stan
d by his side as he returns Jeffery to his crib. The baby stretches, his little hands curling into fists as his feet kick out, stretching the material of his Winnie-the-Pooh footie pajamas. He makes a snuffling noise, and for a moment, I think he might wake. Then his thumb finds his mouth and he settles, content and safe and loved.

  Jackson reaches for my hand, and we walk quietly out of the room. When we reach the hall, he takes one last look, closes the door, and then pulls me roughly to him.

  "You're here," I whisper, the complex depth of my happiness and relief camouflaged by the simplicity of my words. "Why are you here?"

  "Oh, baby," he murmurs, pulling me into his arms. "You need me. Where else would I possibly be?"

  Chapter 2

  ++

  Jackson pressed a kiss to the top of Sylvia's head as she clung to him. He'd seen how stiff she was on the stairs, and he pulled her closer, as if that could draw out her tension. As if a hug and a kiss could erase the fact that he'd been a goddamned bone-headed idiot.

  He should never have gone. What the hell had he been thinking?

  Stark Vacation Properties had hired his company, Steele Development, to design and implement the renovation of an old casino hotel on the outskirts of Las Vegas, in an area ripe for economic growth. There'd been trouble on the job yesterday, a combination of site and government issues that added up to the kind of clusterfuck that needed to be nipped in the bud quickly and efficiently, especially considering the bad press that might be generated if word got out about trouble at a Stark or Steele development site.

  Sylvia knew that, of course. Though she wasn't assigned to the Vegas project, she worked as a project manager for Stark Real Estate Development. So she'd understood the score and had not only urged Jackson to go, but had demanded it. His associate, Chester Harper, who went by Chess, was both intelligent and a talented architect, but he was also newly licensed and a little too green.

  So yes, Jackson had gone. And, yes, he'd dealt with it. Hour after hour with no break, working well into the night so that he could finish what needed to be done and get back to what was most important to him.

  But he should never have left in the first place.

  "I know what you're thinking," she whispered as she eased away from him, then tilted her head back to look at him. "And don't. I'm fine." She wore no makeup and her short brown hair was tousled from sleep. Her lips parted as if she had something else to say, and it took all of his effort not to press her back against the wall and crush his mouth against hers in a silent, desperate apology.

 
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