Claim Me: A Novel
“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 blasé 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 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 companydead, 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.”
can tell,” Blaine says. “So stop it.”
He’s teasing me now. “Yes,
,” 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
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