Take My Dare

By: J. Kenner

 (Stark International Trilogy) (Volume 4)

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.

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.

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