Claim me, p.1
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         Part #2 of Stark Trilogy series by J. Kenner  
Claim Me


  Claim Me is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  A Bantam Books eBook Edition

  Copyright (c) 2013 by Julie Kenner

  Excerpt from Complete Me copyright (c) 2013 by Julie Kenner

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  BANTAM BOOKS and the rooster colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book Complete Me. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Kenner, Julie.

  Claim me: a novel / J. Kenner

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-0-345-54583-1

  eBook ISBN 978-0-345-54584-8

  1. Women professional employees--Fiction. 2. Billionaires--Fiction. 3. Secrets--Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3611.E665C53 2013

  813'.6--dc23 2013009048

  www.bantamdell.com

  Cover design: David G. Stevenson

  Cover illustration: Stephen Youll and David G. Stevenson

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Excerpt from Complete Me

  Acknowledgments

  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  1

  "Almost done?" I ask. "The sun's been down for at least five minutes."

  Several yards away, Blaine tilts sideways, partially emerging from behind the canvas. I don't move, but in my peripheral vision, I can see his shoulders, bald head, and shocking red goatee. "In my mind, you're still bathed in light. Now stand still and be quiet."

  "No problem," I say, and hear his growl of irritation at my blatant flaunting of his rules.

  Despite the fact that I am standing naked in a doorway, our exchange seems perfectly normal. I am used to this now. Used to the way the chilled ocean breeze causes my nipples to peak. The way the sunset stirs something so deep and passionate in me that I long to close my eyes and abandon myself to the violent tapestry of light and color.

  I've become blase about the way Blaine's eye sweeps critically over me, and I no longer flinch when he leans in so close that he almost brushes my breast or my hip as he adjusts my stance to the proper angle. Even his murmurings of "Perfect. Shit, Nikki, you look perfect" no longer make my stomach tighten, and I've stopped imagining my hands closing into tight fists in protest, my nails digging into the soft skin of my palms. I am not perfect--not by a long shot. But it no longer makes me crazy to hear those simple words.

  Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I could feel so at ease despite being so fully on display. True, I'd spent most of my life parading around on a stage, but during my pageant days I was always clothed, and even during the bathing suit competitions, my girl parts were modestly covered. I can imagine my mother's mortification if she saw me now, chin lifted, back arched, a red silk cord binding my wrists behind me and then trailing between my legs to twine gently around one thigh.

  I have not seen Blaine's canvas for days, but I know his style and I can imagine how I look captured in pigment and brushstrokes. Ephemeral. Sensual. Submissive.

  A goddess bound.

  No doubt about it--my mother would have a cow. I, however, am enjoying it. Hell, maybe that's why I'm enjoying it. I've shaken off Proper Princess Nikki for Rebel Nikki, and it feels pretty damn good.

  I hear footsteps on the stairs, and I force myself to remain in my pose even though I want nothing more than to turn and look at him. Damien.

  Damien Stark is the one thing about which I've not become complacent.

  "The offer stands." Damien's words drift up the marble stairs to the third floor. He hasn't raised his voice, and yet it is supported by such strength and confidence that it fills the room. "Tell them to take a good long look at their P and Ls. There isn't going to be any profit, and by the end of the year, there won't even be a company. They're in free fall, and when they crash and burn, every one of their employees will be out of work, the company dead, the patents tied up in litigation for years as creditors fight about the assets. They take this deal, and I'll breathe life back in. You know it. I know it. They know it."

  The footsteps stop, and I realize he is now standing at the top of the stairs. The room is open, designed for entertaining, and normally someone climbing the stairs would be treated to a view of the Pacific Ocean spread wide across the far side of the room.

  Right now, what Damien sees is me.

  "Make it happen, Charles," he says, his voice now tight. "I have to go."

  I have come to know this man so well. His body. His gait. His voice. And I don't need to see him to know that the tension in his tone isn't tied to the thrill of chasing a business deal. It's about me, and that simple fact is as intoxicating as champagne on an empty stomach. An entire empire needing his attention, and yet in that moment, I am his whole world. I am flattered. I am giddy. And, yeah, I am turned on.

  I'm also smiling, which draws a sharp censure from Blaine. "Dammit, Nik. Get rid of the grin."

  "My face doesn't even show in the painting."

  "I can tell," Blaine says. "So stop it."

  He's teasing me now. "Yes, sir," I say, and then almost laugh when Damien coughs, obviously hiding a chuckle of his own. The "sir" is our secret, our game that we play. A game that will officially end tonight, now that Blaine is putting the final touches on the painting that Damien has commissioned. The thought is a melancholy one.

  True, I'll be happy not to have to stand stock-still anymore. Even the thrill of flipping the imaginary bird to my mother's overbearing sense of propriety pales in comparison to the way my legs cramp at the end of these sessions. But I will miss the rest of it, especially the feel of Damien's eyes on me. His slow, heated inspections that make me damp between my thighs and force me to concentrate so hard on remaining still that it becomes sweetly painful.

  And, yes, I will miss our game. But I want more than a game with Damien, and I can't help the eagerness with which I face tomorrow and the knowledge that it will simply be Damien and Nikki with nothing between us. And as for any lingering secrets ... well, with time, those will be brushed away, too.

  Hard now to believe that I'd originally been shocked by Damien's offer: one million dollars in exchange for my body. For my image, permanently on display on a larger-than-life canvas; and for the rest of me at his command, whenever and however he wanted.

  My shock had been replaced by blatant pragmatism laced with equal parts of ardor and outrage. I'd wanted Damien as much as he'd wanted me, but at the same time I'd wanted to punish him. Because I was certain that he saw only the beauty queen, and that when he got a peek at the damaged woman beneath the polished veneer he'd reel from the affront to
his expectations as much as from the lightening of his wallet.

  I've never been so happy to be wrong.

  Our deal had been for a week, but that week turned into two as Blaine buzzed around his canvas, the wooden tip of his brush tapping against his chin as he squinted and frowned and mumbled to himself about wanting just a little more time. About wanting to get everything--that word again--perfect.

  Damien had agreed easily--after all, he'd hired Blaine because of his growing reputation as a local artist, and his skill in handling erotically charged nudes was undeniable. If Blaine wanted more time, Damien was happy to accommodate him.

  I didn't complain for less pragmatic reasons. I simply wanted these days and nights with Damien to last. Like my image on the painting, I was coming alive.

  I'd moved to Los Angeles only a few weeks ago, intent on conquering the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-four. The thought that a man like Damien Stark would want me, much less my portrait, was the furthest thing from my mind. But there'd been no denying the heat that had burned between us from the moment I saw him at one of Blaine's art shows. He'd pursued me relentlessly, and I'd tried my damnedest to resist, because I knew that what he wanted was something that I wasn't willing to give.

  I wasn't a virgin, but neither was I widely experienced. Sex is not something that someone with my history--with my scars--rushes into. I'd been burned by a boy I'd trusted, and my emotions were still as ragged as the scars that marred my flesh.

  Damien, however, doesn't see those scars. Or, more accurately, he sees them for what they are--a part of me. Battle scars from what I have overcome and what I continue to fight. Where I thought my scars reflected a weakness, he sees an indication of strength. And it is that ability--to see me so fully and clearly--that has drawn me so irrevocably and completely to this man.

  "You're smiling again," Blaine says. "I don't even need three guesses to know what you're thinking about. Or who. Do I need to kick our personal Medici out of the room?"

  "You're just going to have to live with her smile," Damien says before I can answer, and once again, I must force myself not to turn and look at him. "Because nothing's making me leave this room unless Nikki is beside me."

  I revel in the velvet smoothness of his voice, and I know he means what he says. We'd spent this entire afternoon window-shopping on Rodeo Drive, celebrating the new job I will start in the morning. We'd walked lazily down the pristine streets, holding hands, sipping calorie-laden frozen mochas, and pretending no one else in the world existed. Even the paparazzi, those vultures with cameras that have become uncomfortably interested in every little thing Damien and I do, paid us little heed.

  Sylvia, Damien's assistant, had tried to put several calls through, but Damien had flat-out refused to take them. "This is our time," he'd said to me, answering my unspoken question.

  "Should I alert the financial papers?" I'd teased. "Doesn't it affect the market when Damien Stark takes a day off work?"

  "I'm willing to risk global economic collapse if it means a few hours with you." He drew my hand up and kissed the tip of each finger. "Of course, the more shopping we do, the more we support the economy." His voice was low and sultry and full of enticing promises. "Or maybe we should go back to the apartment. I can think of several interesting ways to spend the afternoon that have no fiscal impact whatsoever."

  "Tempting," I'd retorted. "But I don't think that I could stand the guilt knowing that I traded an orgasm for fiscal ruin."

  "Trust me, baby. It would be more than one orgasm."

  I'd laughed, and in the end we'd managed to avert global economic disaster (the shoes he bought me are truly awesome) and let me have my orgasm as well. Three, actually. Damien is nothing if not generous.

  As for the phone, he'd been true to his word. Despite the constant vibrations, he'd ignored it until we'd pulled up in front of the Malibu house and I'd insisted he take pity on whoever was being so persistent. I'd hurried inside to meet Blaine, and Damien had lingered behind, reassuring his attorney that the world hadn't collapsed despite Damien's temporary absence from the cellular airwaves.

  I am so lost in my thoughts that I don't realize that Blaine has approached me. He taps my lower lip with the end of his paintbrush and I jump.

  "Damn, Nikki, you were in the zone."

  "Are you done?" I do not mind posing, and Blaine has become a good friend. But right then, I just want him gone. Right then, all I want is Damien.

  "Almost." He holds his hands up, looking at me through his makeshift frame. "Right here," he says, using the brush to indicate. "The light on your shoulder, the way your skin glows, the mix of colors ..." He trails off as he walks back to the portrait. "Damn," he finally says. "I am a fucking genius. This is you, kid. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you could walk right off the canvas."

  "So you're done? I can come look?" I turn without thinking, realizing too late that he probably wanted me to stay still. But suddenly I don't care. All thoughts vanish. Blaine, the painting, the world around me. Because it's not the painting that I see. It's Damien.

  He is right where I'd imagined him, standing on the top step, leaning casually against the wrought-iron banister and looking even yummier in real life than he did in my mind. I might have spent the entire afternoon with him, but it doesn't matter. Every glimpse of him is like ambrosia, and I will never get my fill.

  I soak him in, my eyes lingering on every perfect feature. His defined jaw highlighted by the shadow of stubble. The wind-tossed black hair, thick and smooth and so familiar to my fingers. And his eyes. Those amazing dual-colored eyes that are focused so intently right now that I can feel the weight of his gaze upon my skin.

  He is dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. But even in such informal attire, there is nothing casual about Damien Stark. He is power personified, energy harnessed. And my only fear is the knowledge that one can neither capture nor hold on to a lightning bolt, and I do not want to lose this man.

  His eyes meet mine, and I shiver from the shock of the connection. The athlete, the celebrity, the entrepreneur, the billionaire persona all fall away, leaving only the man and an expression that makes my blood heat and my insides curl with longing. An expression that is so raw and primal that were I not already naked, I'm certain that every stitch of clothing would have turned to ash, burned away by the heat in his eyes.

  My skin prickles, and I have to force myself not to move. "Damien," I whisper, unable to resist the feel of his name upon my lips. The word seems to hang in the room, trapped in the air that is thick between us.

  By the easel, Blaine clears his throat. Damien shifts enough to look at him, and I think it is surprise that I see on his face, as if he'd forgotten that we aren't alone. He crosses the distance to Blaine and stands at the artist's side in front of the huge portrait. From my position, I can see the wooden frame across which the canvas is stretched and, to the side, the two men studying an image that is hidden from my view.

  My heart pounds against my rib cage and my gaze does not waver from Damien's face. There is something rapturous in his eyes, as if he is looking up at an object of worship, and his silent benediction makes my knees go weak. I want to reach out a hand and steady myself on the frame of the bed beside which I'm posing, but my wrists are still bound behind my back.

  My immobility reminds me of the situation, and I fight another smile--I am not free. I am Damien's.

  In Blaine and Damien's original concept for the portrait, I'd simply stood in this spot, the gossamer drapes set to flutter about me, my face turned away from the artist. The image was sensual, but aloof, as if someone was yearning for that woman but would never touch her. The portrait was stunning, but something was missing. Damien suggested that we contrast the free-flowing drapes that graze lightly over my skin with the constriction of a bloodred rope, and that we bind my hands behind me.

  I didn't hesitate to agree. I wanted the man. Wanted to be bound to him. To belong to him. To be claimed by him.


  No longer would my image be unattainable. Instead, the woman in the portrait was a prize. An ephemeral goddess tamed by a worthy man.

  Damien.

  I search his face, looking for clues to his assessment of the portrait, but there is nothing. This is his corporate expression, the unreadable mask he wears so as to not give away his secrets. Damien is extremely good at hiding his secrets.

  "Well?" I ask, when I can stand it no longer. "What do you think?"

  For a moment, Damien remains silent. Beside him, Blaine shifts nervously. And though only seconds pass, the air is thick with the weight of eternity. I can almost taste Blaine's frustration, and I understand the impulse when he finally blurts out, "Come on, man. It's perfect, right?"

  Damien's shoulders rise and fall as he draws in a deep breath then faces Blaine with respect. "It's more than perfect," he says, turning to me. "It's her."

  Blaine's smug grin is like sunshine. "I gotta say, I've never been shy about bragging on my own work, but this is ... well, it's wow. Real. Sensual. Most of all, it's honest."

  Damien's eyes never leave mine, and I draw a shaky breath. My pulse pounds so loudly it's a surprise I can hear anything else. I'm certain that the rising and falling of my chest must be visible, and I fear that Blaine can tell that I'm trying desperately to quell the wellspring of desire that bubbles violently within me. It takes all my effort not to beg Blaine to leave the room, to cry out for Damien to kiss me. To touch me.

  A sharp beep shatters the heavy silence, and Damien yanks the phone out of his pocket, then spits out a curse when he reads the text. I see the shadows gather on his face as he slides the phone back, the message unanswered. I press my lips together as my skin begins to prickle with the first stirrings of worry.

  Blaine, his head tilted as he inspects the canvas, is oblivious. "Nik, don't move. I just want to touch up the light right here, and--"

  The shrill ring of Damien's phone interrupts Blaine's words. I expect Damien to ignore the call as he had the text, but he surprises me by answering. But not before moving out of the room with such swift, firm steps that I barely even hear the curt, "What?"

  He does not meet my eyes.

  I force myself to stand still for Blaine, fighting a sudden wave of fear. This is not a business call; Damien Stark does not get upset over business. On the contrary, he thrives on the chase, on the conquest.

 
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