Enchant Me by J. Kenner
A cool ocean breeze caresses my face as I stand on the third-floor balcony of our Malibu home and look out over the hustle and bustle going on below. Frank and Evelyn’s wedding is in less than three hours, and half the planning staff are hurrying to set the chairs in perfectly straight lines on the specially designed helipad that looks exactly like a normal lawn, while the other half are decorating the wedding arch with pink and white roses.
It’s already past five on this August afternoon, and I should be inside, urging my kids into their fancy clothes or watching my husband dress in our apartment-sized closet. The thought makes me smile, because watching Damien Stark—both in and out of a tailored Brioni Vanquish II suit—is something I will never tire of.
Right now, though, I’m enjoying this moment. Thinking back on the years that have passed and another August evening when I stood on a different balcony with a similar Malibu view. That party—Evelyn’s party—had set me on a path that led inexorably into Damien’s arms. And now here I am, over a decade later, about to watch her exchange vows with my father.
I hug myself, letting a lifetime of memories wash over me. Some sweet and gentle, some dark and filled with pain and loss and difficult choices. But all led me to where I am now, and I know with absolute certainty that there is nothing I would have changed, not even the horror of my life with my mother in Texas. How could I, when my past was the first step toward my future with Damien? And he—
“NonononoNOOOO! Bradley Nicholas Stark, you come back here right now!”
I press my lips together as I fight a burst of laughter, then rearrange my face into an expression of concern rather than amusement as I turn to face my two-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter.
“Mama! Me naked!!”
I almost laugh from the stern tone in Lara’s voice, one I’ve heard pass from my own lips on more than one occasion.Then I crouch, holding out my arms so my youngest can run into them. I scoop him up, breathing in the tantalizing scent of powder and bubble bath. “Hey there, BB. How’s my little scuttlebutt doing?”
Throughout my pregnancy we’d been unable to decide on a name, and we’d ended up calling him BBS for Baby Boy Stark. Ultimately, Damien had come up with the perfect name. Bradley—a combination of Bradbury in honor of Damien’s favorite author, and Ashley in honor of my sister and our first child, who we lost early in the pregnancy. The Nicholas is a nod to my best friend Jamie, as it’s her nickname for me, just like I call her James.
But despite having such a perfect name, Damien and I still often call him BB. He is, after all, our baby boy.
“Mommy!” I can hear the scowl on Lara’s face reflected in her voice. “He wouldn’t let me finish drying him, and I told him to stop, but he wouldn’t.”
She narrows her eyes at her little brother, her arms crossed over her chest. “Anne minded me.”
“Well, then you should tell Anne thank you,” I say, glancing around the room for my younger daughter. I don’t find her, and return my attention to my eldest. “But she’s six now, and Bradley’s barely two. Do you remember what you were like at two?”
She twists her mouth. “I was a tornado. That’s what Daddy says.”
“And Daddy got that right.” She’d been twenty months old when we returned from the adoption trip. At first, she’d been reserved, but in the short time between leaving China and her second birthday at home, the last of that reticence had fallen away, and she’d blossomed into our adorable, opinionated, passionate, awesome little girl.
“But I minded, Mommy. He’s not minding me.” She sticks an accusing finger toward her brother, who giggles and squirms in my arms.
“He’s just excited from all the activity. He’ll calm down. Come here, Snuggles,” I say, carrying him over so that he’s looking out toward the helipad with me. “We’re going to be sitting there soon. Do you remember who’s getting married?”
“Paw-paw,” he says, clapping his hands. “Paw-paw and Ebby!”
“You are so right,” I tell him, then kiss the top of his head and breathe in the subtle scent of baby shampoo.
“Ebby!” Lara calls from where she now stands beside me on the balcony. She’s looking down toward the pool deck that opens off the first floor living area. “Look at me!”
I see Evelyn there, the kids’ Ebby thanks to Anne’s mispronunciation. And since Evelyn swears she likes that better than grandma, it’s stuck. “I may have inched into grandmother years,” she’d told me, “but considering I haven’t actually had a kid, I think I’d prefer to enjoy the job without the official title.”
“Ebby!” Lara tries again, but Evelyn is clearly engrossed in something on her phone. Her expression, however, is anything but happy. A tiny seed of trepidation takes root in my stomach, because I can’t image what could be so upsetting that she’s already at the house a full three hours before the guests are due.
She stayed last night in my home office, a beach bungalow that is nestled into the hills at the base of our property. Her own house is near enough, but she’s in the middle of a remodel, and I’d suggested she stay in the bungalow so she’d be away from the noise and the mess before the ceremony.
After won’t matter, as tomorrow morning she and Frank head to the honeymoon villa at The Resort at Cortez. They’re spending phase one of their honeymoon at the nearby resort before heading on to the much more distant islands of Greece. By the time they return home, the contractors will have completed the renovations.
“I wanted your dad to know it’s as much his home as mine,” she’d said the day she showed me the plans. “And I don’t want him having to drive all the way to Santa Monica just because he wants to use the darkroom in his studio. So I’m adding one to the house, plus another guest bedroom for the kids and a man cave for Frank.”
I’ve been in love with Evelyn since the moment I met her as the bold and brassy hostess of an erotic art show who spoke her mind, stood by her friends, and took no shit from anybody. But that practical show of love for my father—and my kids—just about gutted me.
To be honest, she’s felt more like a mom to me than Elizabeth Fairchild ever had, and the fact that Evelyn is now going to truly fill that role makes me glow with joy. Which is why I’m now frowning as I see the way her forehead has creased and her frame seems to sag in a full-body frown. Cold fingers of dread creep up my spine, because what could possibly be disturbing her on her wedding day?
“Ebby!” Lara shouts once more, as I cuddle Bradley closer. But she gets no response. Instead, Evelyn turns and wanders into the house, her gait slow as if she’s about to tackle a necessary but unpleasant task.
“She didn’t see me,” Lara says, looking at me with such dark brown eyes they almost match her midnight black hair, now up in a bun and ready to be topped with her flower girl headdress. Assuming, of course, she stays tidy enough that it doesn’t have to be redone.
I’m about to tell her that she can go downstairs and check on Evelyn, who looks like she could use some cuddles from a kid, but Lara’s already spun around, and before I can speak or follow she releases a joyous squeal. “Daddy!”
I turn as she races toward him, then leaps into his outstretched arms. He’s in a freshly pressed suit and looks like he could have stepped off the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I wince, certain that our daughter is going to wrinkle him. But he doesn’t even flinch. Just balances her on his hip, kisses her forehead, then meets my eyes, the force of his love so palpable it takes my breath away.
Damien. I take a moment to let my gaze linger on every perfect feature. That strong jawline, clean-shaven but already with a slight shadow even though he shaved only a few hours ago. The raven-black hair with a hint of gray at his temples that only makes him look more powerful and dashing. And those dual-colored eyes that are examining me with such intensity that it’s all I can do not to melt.
All these years—all the hours we’ve spent together, the life and family we’ve built—and it doesn’t matter at all. With Damien, every time I see him is like the first, and he completely takes my breath away, my entire being flooded by love. And, yes, with desire.
“It’s totally unfair, you know,” I say.
He tilts his head, a tiny grin playing at his mouth. “Much is. What specifically are you talking about?”
“That not only are you already dressed and look like you’re ready for a cover shoot, but that you’re going to look just as fresh and pulled together two hours from now when the wedding starts. And that’s even if I make you dress this one,” I add, jiggling Bradley enough to make him giggle.
“Pass him over to me,” Damien says, as Lara slides down him like a little monkey, then scurries out the door calling for her sister.
“I’m teasing,” I admit. “Bree will get him ready.”
“She’s reading to Anne. I can do it. Father-son bonding time, right?”
I laugh as he comes to my side, then takes our boy from my arms before bending over to kiss me. He holds Bradley snug in one crooked arm, then hooks the other around my waist as we move back onto the balcony. He looks out over the yard as I was doing only moments before, watching the high-tech helipad get transformed into a nuptial paradise.
“I thought they were crazy when they suggested doing their wedding like this today, but I have to admit that I’m glad they did.”
“Me, too,” I say. “It’s the dress rehearsal to end all dress rehearsals.”
Long before Bradley was born, Damien had suggested we renew our vows. I’d always wanted a big ceremony, but my mother’s machinations had stolen the joy, and we’d ended up eloping. It was a beautiful, beachside ceremony with just the two of us, and I don’t regret that choice at all.
But through the years we’ve overcome so much, the least of which was finally exorcising my mother from our life. So when Damien suggested having a big ceremony, I couldn’t deny the appeal. I want to stand in front of the friends and family we cherish as I exchange vows with Damien. Not because either of us needs a reminder, but because the intensity of our love feels too big to be captured in one small ceremony.
When I became pregnant, we postponed those plans, deciding that we wanted all of our kids to play a role. Now that Bradley is two—and more or less willing to mind his sisters—the timing finally felt right.
Frank and Evelyn were the first people with whom we’d shared our plans, explaining how this time we wanted a huge ceremony on the property with our friends and family. Limited family, anyway. Neither my mother nor Damien’s father would be joining us.
We planned a ceremony, a full meal, and a party. Even a play area for the kids. No official honeymoon trip—both Damien and I travel too much—but a few days alone in the Lake Arrowhead house while the kids stayed with their cousins at Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Jackson’s place would be fabulous.
The ceremony was set for this coming Saturday, on the exact date in August when I’d met Damien at Evelyn’s party. It was, I’d thought, the perfect plan, and Frank and Evelyn had both agreed and congratulated us.
Later that evening, though, they’d suggested that we do a minor dress rehearsal the Saturday before. “Alaine will want to cater, of course,” Evelyn had said, referring to Damien’s childhood friend, Alaine Beauchene, who had toured with Damien during his tennis days as the son of a sports medicine doctor. Now, he’s universally regarded as one of the best chefs in the city.
“That’s not something his restaurant does regularly,” Evelyn had added, “but I know he’s been considering a catering sideline. And if he’s tackling your guest list, I bet he’d appreciate a dry run.”
“I’m sure Alaine can handle it without a rehearsal,” Damien had said. “He’s as competent as they come.”
Evelyn had squeezed Frank’s hand, then cleared her throat. As a rule, Evelyn’s as strong and outspoken as anyone I’ve ever met. That’s what’s made her such a powerhouse in Hollywood for all these years. Right then, though, she’d looked uncharacteristically nervous. “Oh, hell, Damien,” she finally said. “Don’t you get it? I want to be family—officially—before your wedding.”
She lifted her left hand that had been hidden in the folds of her dress. “Been meaning to find a way to tell you two,” she began, as I started to squeal with glee. “We’re getting married. And if it doesn’t inconvenience you, we’d love to be your dry run.”
Now, Damien shifts Bradley in his arms, the motion pulling me from the memory. “They’re already family,” he says, making clear that his thoughts had tracked my own. “Both of them. But I like the idea of it being official before our ceremony.”
“Me, too,” I agree, understanding what he has left unspoken. That both of us are the product of deficient parenting. Damien, with his snake of a father and a mother who passed away far too young. Me with an abusive, controlling mother and a father who walked when I was too young to understand and old enough to be hurt.
Neither my mother nor Jeremiah Stark have redeemed themselves. But Frank sought me out and worked slowly and deliberately to not only make up for his past mistakes, but to prove that he truly loves me and my family and wants to be part of our lives. Not for financial gain or the spillover from the spotlight that seems to constantly follow my husband. But simply because we are family.
Family. That’s the core of the pride I see coming off of Damien. This corporate warrior and master of the universe. For years he built his empire in a vacuum, without any purpose other than an innate need to conquer his past and build a tangible future. Now, he’s still as competitive and innovative and commanding as before, but the core of it is different. Now, his goal is a legacy for our children. Comfort for our family and friends. And the fact that we have the kind of home that Frank and Evelyn—two of the most important people in our lives—want to share on their most special day is both magical and humbling.
I’ve been looking out over the workers who have finished with the chairs and arch. Now I turn toward Damien to find him looking at me, his expression so full of joy that I feel almost weightless.
“Hard to believe that—” he begins, only to be interrupted by the chime of his phone. “Sorry,” he says, passing Bradley to me. “I’ll turn it off closer to the wedding, but until I hear back about this meeting, I—”
“I get it,” I assure him. Damien seeks out new talent the way my best friend Jamie used to stalk cute guys. I don’t know who he’s courting specifically, but I do know that his potential conquest is a genius in the area of applied physics and mechanical engineering.
I bounce Bradley, turning to show him the ocean and the tennis court and whisper that he’s going to take a short nap before the craziness of the ceremony and reception.
That’s when I hear Damien’s sharp curse.
I turn, wondering what could possibly have upset him.
“Damien?” He looks up, and the haunted look in his eye scares me so much I actually take a step backward. “Damien,” I repeat. “What—”
“I got them, too,” Evelyn says, and I glance over Damien’s shoulder to see her standing in the doorway, our part-time nanny, Bree, standing right behind her. “Bree, can you take Bradley?” Evelyn continues.
“Of course.” Bree shoots me a look of confused concern, then comes to get Bradley from me. “Lara and Anne are already in the playroom.”
I nod, grateful the kids are downstairs. I don’t understand what’s going on, but I am absolutely certain I don’t want the children around when I find out.
As Bree heads out with our son, I look between Evelyn and my husband, expecting Damien to speak first.
He doesn’t, though, and it’s Evelyn who meets my eyes. “It’s the Richter photos,” she says, her flatly professional voice belying the horror of those vile images that stand as witness to the abuse Damien suffered. “Apparently there are more, and someone’s threatening to release them.”