Play My Game (Stark Trilogy, #3.7)(4)

“You mean the weather? It’s usually a bit colder this time of year, but it’s always comfortable.”

I glance sideways at him, wondering if he’s really that clueless. His expression, however, is entirely unreadable.

“I just meant—” I cut myself off, frustrated.

His brow furrows. “What?”

Communication, I think. Marriage is all about communication.

“I was just thinking that our first Valentine’s Day is almost here.”

“Not even close,” he says.

“Um, less than a week. That’s right around the corner.”

I don’t realize that he’s stopped until I’ve gone a few more steps. I turn back. Damien actually looks a little worried, and I confess I’m surprised. This will be our first Valentine’s Day together, and knowing Damien and romance, I’d anticipated him doing it up big. I tell myself it’s stupid to get my feelings hurt, especially since there’s a week to go, and Damien could pull off amazing with only five minutes’ notice.

Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed. Which is completely and totally unfair, but there you go.

I draw in a breath and plaster on one of my best pageant smiles. “Actually, you’re right,” I say. “As far as you and I are concerned, a week is practically a lifetime.”

“Nikki. Come here.” His voice is low and apologetic, and I keep my face bland because now I am certain that he forgot. He just … forgot.

People forget things, though, right? Even newlyweds.

Even Damien Stark.

I move into his arms, in part because he asked me to, but also because I want to be close enough to him that if I tilt my head down he won’t see the stupid, foolish, idiotic tears that are starting to well in my eyes.

He slides his hands over my arms, moving them until I’m cupping his ass—along with the small, square box tucked into his back pocket.

“Take it out.” His voice is firm, but I think I hear a faint hint of amusement.

I blink, then do as he asks. It’s a small, white cardboard box, the kind that department stores use to package jewelry. Confused, I look up at Damien, and I no longer wonder if he’s amused. It’s very clear that he is.

“Open it.”

I’m starting to feel very foolish, but I do as he asks and gently tug off the lid to reveal a necklace on which hangs a tiny glass bottle. Inside the bottle is a rolled up piece of paper.

I look up at Damien, confused. “It’s lovely.”

“Take out the scroll.”

“Really?” I don’t wait for his reply, but use my fingernails to pull out the tiny cork. The paper is harder to get out, but Damien fishes a little army knife out of his front pocket, then passes the tiny pair of tweezers to me. I realize as he does that he’d brought the knife in anticipation of this moment.

Even with the tweezers, it takes some skill to fish out the paper. I finally manage, though, and I unscroll it, then squint at the tiny writing.

For my wife for Valentine’s Day,

A proposition, if I may—

Three clues for you,

You know what to do—

And if you want your present to claim,

You’re going to have to play my game

Now here’s the clue that I speak of:

Tell me, darling Nikki, what is sweeter than Love?

“Damien.” My voice is soft, muted by the happy, astounded tears that have clogged my throat.

“I can’t claim to be a poet,” Damien says, though I think the poem is charming, and all the more wonderful because Damien wrote it.

He hooks his finger under my chin and tilts my head up so that there is no way I can hide my tear-filled eyes. “Three clues. Six days. I think you’ll make it.”

My heart has swollen so much it seems to fill my chest, cutting off my ability to breathe. “You didn’t forget.”

The softness I see in his eyes just about slays me. “Oh, baby. I could sooner forget my own name than our first Valentine’s Day.”

“I love you.” The words seem thin compared to the emotion that pours through me.

“And I you. But, Nikki,” he adds, and now his voice takes on a harder edge, belied only by the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. “You doubted me. I think that deserves a punishment.”

I cock my head, wary, then squeal when he smacks my bottom. I laugh and take off toward the house at a run.

But not too fast. After all, I’m hoping that Damien will catch me.

Chapter 2

Since Damien is in exceptional shape—and since I’m not exactly trying hard to get away—he catches me easily enough. He tugs me to a stop, then scoops me into his arms. I kick and squirm a little just for form, but there’s no denying that I am a very willing captive.

I keep my arms hooked around his neck as he carries me up the path and then surprises me by veering off onto the newly constructed tennis court.

There is a plush lounge chair on the sidelines, which I have recently realized he put there so that I would have a place to sit and watch him practice. That’s not all it’s good for, though, especially as it is as wide as a twin bed and at least as comfortable.

“Damien,” I protest as he pulls my sweater over my head. “It’s broad daylight.” I don’t add that there is still a chill in the air. The temperature may be in the sixties, but right at this moment my skin is so heated that I could be naked in Antarctica and not even notice.

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