“No one,” she croaked. “He just looked like . . .” She trailed off helplessly and to her further horror, tears slipped down her cheeks. “He reminded me of someone. Please, can we just leave?”
“The hell I’m letting you drive home in your condition.”
He got up, tossed several bills onto the table, then pulled her to her feet, instantly propelling her toward the entrance, not stopping until they were outside, fresh air blowing over her like the most soothing balm.
Some of the tightness eased. Her horrific fear began to subside, leaving stark embarrassment in its wake.
“Breathe,” Jensen ordered even as he barked an order to the valet to get his car.
She sucked in breath after breath, gulping at the air greedily until finally the tightness eased and the spots receded. The world had stopped its sickening swaying, but as she tried to step away from Jensen and his hold on her, her knees buckled, and with a muttered curse, he hauled her right back up against his side, his arm anchoring her there so she couldn’t move.
His warmth bled into her icy cold skin. Permeated the arctic layer surrounding her.
“My c-car,” she stammered. “I can’t leave my car here.”
“Fuck your car,” he said rudely. “You aren’t driving anywhere tonight. I’m taking you home. We’ll get your car tomorrow after the meeting.”
THE drive to Kylie’s house was strained and silent. Jensen cursed a blue streak every time he glanced sideways to her pale face and tortured eyes. She sat rigid in her seat, hands clenched together in a ball in her lap. Her gaze was directed forward, like she was in some trance, not even taking in his presence.
She’d scared the f**k out of him in the restaurant. And then his fear had quickly turned to rage when he realized that the man seated several tables away had scared the holy hell out of her. He’d wanted to go beat the man into a pulp, but then she’d said he only reminded her of someone. Since the man was older, he could well imagine just who he’d reminded her of and he swore all over again.
His instinct was to take her home. His home. Where he knew he could protect her from anything that could possibly hurt her. But she wouldn’t take that at all. She’d likely dissolve into another panic attack, and the one had already put a vicious strain on her.
So he’d take her home. To her home. But damn if he was leaving her in this state. She wouldn’t want him there, but too f**king bad. No way he was leaving her to endure her private hell alone.
Kylie needed someone, though she’d never admit that. She saw it as a weakness, and she was a woman who’d die before allowing others to see her perceived weaknesses. Damn it, didn’t she realize that everyone needed someone at some point in their lives?
And he wanted to be that person she needed even though he knew he was all wrong for her. He wasn’t the man she wanted, that much was obvious. But she did need him. He knew it as well as he knew anything else. Unwavering certainty.
He just had to crack those walls and peel back the layers to the vulnerable, fragile woman behind that iron façade.
It wouldn’t be easy. He wasn’t stupid enough to ever assume that. But nothing good or worth it was ever easy. And he knew in his gut that no matter how crazy it might make him, she was worth it.
He had to tread lightly though, and consider doing something he’d never been willing to do before. Especially for a woman. Let go of his tightly held control and hand over that control—or at least the semblance of control—to her.
It was a new experience for him. One he wasn’t altogether sure was to his liking. It would be hard for a man like him, used to being in control over every aspect of his life. But Kylie needed security. She needed . . . confidence. She needed to be able to trust him, and if he was going to gain that trust, he was going to have to do the bending for them. Because she wouldn’t. She’d refuse to bend until she finally broke. And she was nearing that point with every passing day and every sleepless night. Because if she was sleeping then he was a monkey’s uncle.
He’d be willing to bet everything he owned that her past intruded on her dreams on a nightly basis. He’d seen the evidence far too many times. The bruised shadows in her eyes and under them. Her paleness. The fatigue that beat relentlessly at her, that he could sense with her every breath.
Tonight she’d sleep and she’d sleep knowing she was safe. Because he wasn’t leaving her in this state. No way in hell.
And so he readied himself for the ensuing confrontation, knowing she’d object to his presence in her home. Her space. Perhaps the only place she truly felt safe. But no, that wasn’t true either, because in sleep, even in her closely guarded sanctuary, her dreams tortured her.
Not tonight. Not if he had any damn thing to do with it.
When they pulled into her drive, he got out before she could say anything at all and walked around to open her door, not waiting for her to accept his outstretched hand. He simply reached in, gently took hold of those icy cold fingers and pulled her from the car.
Her gait was unsteady and so, as he’d done outside the restaurant, he pulled her into the safety of his side, tucking her underneath his shoulder as he walked her to her door.
He knew she expected to brush him off once they reached the door. Issue a stiff, polite good-night and perhaps even a stilted thank-you for his help. But then she’d retreat inside and back to her private hell, shutting the door, barring him from her domain.
He plucked the keys from her hand and unlocked the door, ushering her forward, making sure he was with her the entire way, and only then did he close the door and lock it.
“Jensen,” she protested. “I’m fine. Thank you, but I’m okay now. It was stupid. And embarrassing. But I’d rather be alone right now. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You’ll see me right now,” he said grimly.
Even as he spoke, he directed her toward what he guessed was her bedroom. Her house, as he’d suspected, was the picture of tranquility. Her haven. Not a single thing out of place. A study in calm and peace.
She resisted when they reached her bedroom, turning, a fierce, stubborn glint to her eyes. “You can go now, Jensen.” No trace of her earlier panic attack was evident in her eyes. But it was the tight lines around her lips. The strain in her forehead and the paleness of her face that told him otherwise.
She wasn’t okay and he wasn’t leaving.
“Get dressed for bed while I fix us both a drink. Is your bar stocked? I think something strong is called for.”
She paled and then shook her head. “Only wine, and I rarely indulge. Usually only when I go out with Chessy and Joss or if I’m over at one of their houses.”
“Then wine it is. You need something to relax you. You have five minutes to change if you don’t want me walking in while you’re getting undressed.”
After that directive, he strode out of her bedroom, closing the door so she would be assured complete privacy. He purposely took longer than five minutes because he knew she likely spent the first several minutes arguing with herself and forming all sorts of ways to tell him to go f**k himself.
He shrugged. He’d had far worse said to him. And he had already discovered her bark was far more ferocious than her bite. Underneath the tough exterior lay a soft heart and an even softer soul.
He poured them both a glass, though he had no desire for the drink. His thoughts were too consumed with Kylie and the episode he’d witnessed at the restaurant. Whether she wanted to or not, she was going to explain to him exactly what the hell had spurred that panic attack. He had a good idea, but he wanted to hear it from her. Wanted her to trust him enough to open up and perhaps talk about things she never spoke of to anyone else.
It was an unrealistic expectation, but it didn’t prevent him from wanting it.
When he shouldered his way back into her bedroom, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, pale, shaken, dressed in very modest pajamas, long sleeved, covering every inch of her delectable flesh.
It was in the unguarded moment when she hadn’t yet registered his presence that he saw beyond the façade she presented to the rest of the world.
She looked infinitely fragile and so very vulnerable. She looked . . . lonely. Sadness clung to her like a fog, surrounding her with such heaviness it made his heart ache. Then she glanced up, eyes startled as she realized she was no longer alone.
And just as quickly, the barriers were back up, her face becoming impenetrable. But he’d already seen beyond it. Knew what was underneath.
“This really isn’t necessary,” she protested when he shoved the glass of wine into her hands. “I’m okay, Jensen. It was very kind of you to bring me home, but I feel foolish. It was stupid of me and now I’m just embarrassed.”
Jensen ignored her protests and settled onto the bed next to her, their thighs nearly touching.
“Who did he remind you of, Kylie?” he asked gently.
She went pale and immediately averted her gaze. She took a long swallow of the wine, gulping at it almost as if she needed the liquid courage it would bring to even dwell on the earlier episode.
“My father,” she blurted.
She immediately squeezed her eyes shut, regret etched in her forehead. She shook her head in bewilderment, obviously asking herself why she’d confided that much.
“Is he still alive?” Jensen asked.
“And does he live here? Do you ever see him?” he prodded.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “And no, I don’t see him. Ever. I have no desire to. I wish he were dead. I wish it had been him and not Carson. It’s not fair.”
Tears thickened her voice and slid down her cheeks. She seemed embarrassed by them but he didn’t move, didn’t react. He didn’t want to draw any more attention to the emotion she tried to hide from him. He wanted her to continue. To speak of the demons that haunted her. He wanted to understand every aspect of her pain and fear so he would know how to help her.
“Why did Carson have to die?” she said on a sob. “He was so good. Never did anything to hurt anyone. He loved and adored Joss. He loved and protected me. He’s the only one who ever protected me. And yet he died and our father lives. It’s unfair,” she said again, anger seeping through the grief.
Jensen gently took her hand, curling it into his much larger one, stroking her knuckles with his thumb.
“Life isn’t fair, baby. And you’re right. It isn’t fair that the son of a bitch that fathered you is alive and well and Carson was killed. But little in life makes sense. We have to deal with the cards we’re dealt.”
“I hate that I can’t move on,” she whispered. “I hate it, Jensen. I hate being so weak. Do you understand that? I hate it!”
He squeezed her hand, offering his reassurance, when what he wanted most was to take her in his arms and simply hold her. Nothing else. Just hold her.
“You aren’t weak,” he denied. “I don’t pretend to know everything you’ve gone through, but I know enough to recognize you are a survivor. You didn’t allow yourself to be beaten down. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
She leaned into him, and whether it was conscious or not, he wasn’t complaining either way. Taking a chance, he let go of her hand and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her more firmly into his embrace. She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel the exhaustion tugging at her. The need to simply rest without fear or memories of the past intruding.
How long had it been since she’d truly slept? One night where her mind was blank and she gave in to complete and utter rest.
“At times I don’t think I survived at all,” she said in a voice so low he had to strain to hear. “And I wonder if he didn’t win after all. I used to think I’d beaten him. That what he did didn’t damage me, but that’s not true, is it? He did win because even now, when he isn’t any part of my life, my present, he’s still there, just as if he was standing in front of me. And no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of him or the memory of all he did.”
He kissed the top of her silky hair, unable to prevent himself that small indulgence. She stiffened and he cursed under his breath. Because whatever slip she’d made, a small moment where she’d been able to surrender to the need to turn to someone, it was now gone and she was very aware of the fact that he was in her bedroom and she was in his arms, his lips pressed to her head.
She pulled away, unable to meet his gaze, but he could see the shame and embarrassment in her eyes and it gutted him. Because he didn’t want her to feel that way with him. He wanted her to feel comfortable enough with him to let those barriers down and let him into the heart of her.
“You should go now,” she said in a quiet, tight tone. “I’ve taken up far too much of your time already.”
“I’m not leaving you tonight,” he said bluntly.
Her head whirled around and shocked, wide eyes met his gaze. Surprise was evident, yes, but what slayed him was the abject terror in those huge eyes. He could see another panic attack was imminent and that was the last thing he wanted.
“You c-can’t s-stay here,” she stammered out.
“Yes, I can,” he said calmly. “And I am.”
She shook her head, panic spreading over her face.
He put his hand on her shoulder, feeling the violent trembling she tried so hard to control.
“I’m not leaving you, baby,” he said in a tender voice. “I get that you’re freaked out and afraid. But I swear to you that you have nothing to fear from me.”