Home > Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(11)

Release Me (Stark Trilogy #1)(11)
Author: J. Kenner

She chuckles, amused at her own joke, then waves at someone who’s caught her attention. I glance toward Damien, looking for evidence of the wounded child that Evelyn has recalled, but all I see is unerring strength and self-confidence. Am I seeing a mask? Or am I really looking at the man?

“What I’m trying to say,” Evelyn continues, “is that you shouldn’t take it personally. The way he acted, I mean. I doubt he meant to be rude. He was probably just off in his head and didn’t even realize what he was doing.”

I, of course, have moved past the snub at our meeting, but Evelyn doesn’t realize that. My current issues with Damien Stark are wide and varied—ranging from the simple problem of a ride home to more complicated emotions that I’m not inclined to analyze.

“You were right about Rip and Lyle,” I say, because she keeps looking in Stark’s direction, and I want to head off any suggestion that we edge our way into that conversation. “My roommate is in awe that I’m in the same room with them.”

“Well, come on, then. I’ll introduce you.”

The two stars—both polished and shined within an inch of their lives—are perfectly polite and perfectly dull. I have nothing to say to them. I don’t even know what their show is about. Evelyn can’t seem to wrap her head around the possibility that anyone could either not care or not know about all things Hollywood. She seems to think I’m merely being coy and is about to leave me alone with these two.

Social Nikki would smile and make polite small talk. But Social Nikki is getting a bit frayed around the edges, and instead, I reach out, snagging a bit of Evelyn’s sleeve before she escapes too far. She looks back at me, her brows raised in question. I have nothing to say. Panic bubbles in me; Social Nikki has completely left the building.

And then I see it—my excuse. My salvation. It’s so unexpected—so completely out of place—that I half wonder if I’m not hallucinating. “That man,” I say, pointing to a skinny twenty-something with long, wavy hair and wire-framed glasses. He looks like he belongs at Woodstock, not an art show, and I hold my breath, expecting the apparition to vanish. “Is that Orlando McKee?”

“You know Orlando?” she asks, then answers her own question. “Of course. The friend who works for Charles. But where did you two meet?” She nods goodbye to Lyle and Rip, who could care less about our departure; they’re back to arguing between themselves and smiling brightly at the women who sidle in close for a snapshot.

“We grew up together,” I explain as Evelyn steers me through the throng.

The truth is our families lived next door to each other until Ollie went off to college, and even though he’s two years older than me, we were inseparable until Ollie turned twelve and was shipped off to boarding school in Austin. I had been beside myself with envy.

I haven’t seen Ollie for years, but he’s the kind of friend that you don’t need to talk to every day. Months can go by, and then he’ll call me out of the blue, and we pick up the conversation like it had never stopped. He and Jamie are my closest friends in the world and I am beyond giddy that he’s here, right when I need him so desperately.

We’re close now, but he hasn’t noticed us. He’s talking about some television show with another guy, this one in jeans and a sport coat over a pale pink button-down. Very California. Ollie’s hands are moving, because that’s the way he talks, and when he flails one hand my direction, he glances that way out of reflex. I see the moment that realization hits him. He freezes, his hand drops, and he turns to face me, his arms going out wide.

“Nikki? My God, you look amazing.” He pulls me into a tight Ollie hug, then pushes me back, his hands on my shoulders as he looks me up and down.

“Do I pass inspection?”

“When have you not?”

“Why aren’t you in New York?”

“The firm transferred me back last week. I was going to call you this weekend. I couldn’t remember when you were moving out here.” He pulls me into another spontaneous hug, and I’m grinning so wide my mouth is starting to hurt. “Damn, it’s good to see you.”

“I take it you two know each other,” the guy in jeans says drolly.

“Sorry,” Ollie says. “Nikki, this is Jeff. We work together at Bender, Twain & McGuire.”

“What he means is that I work for him,” Jeff says. “I’m a summer associate. Orlando is a third year now, and they love him there. I think Maynard’s about ready to make him a partner.”

“Very funny,” Ollie says, but he looks pleased.

“Look at you,” I say. “My little guppy’s grown into a full-fledged shark.”

“Ah-ah. You know the rules. For every lawyer joke you make, I get to make two dumb blonde jokes.”

“I take it back.”

“Come on, Jeff,” Evelyn says. “Let’s let these two catch up. We’ll go find our own trouble to get into.”

It would be polite to tell them not to bother, but neither one of us does. We’re too wrapped up in reminiscing, and I’m too happy to have Ollie beside me.

We talk about everything and nothing as we head for the door, taking our conversation outside by silent agreement. I’m completely absorbed, warmed by memories and Ollie’s familiar face. But as we reach the door, I turn back and look at the room. I’m not sure why I do. Maybe it’s just a reflex, but I think it’s something more. I think I’m looking for someone. For him.

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