ONE

“YOU look like hell,” Jensen Tucker said bluntly from the doorway of Kylie Breckenridge’s office.

Kylie shot him a look that would have withered a lesser man. But Jensen was frustratingly unaffected by her icy demeanor around him. He acted as if he didn’t have a clue that he bugged the shit out of her. But no, she imagined he knew exactly how much he bothered her, and he just chose to ignore it. Stubborn, impossible, completely overbearing man. Precisely the kind of man she avoided at all costs.

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Only he was her boss. That put another sour expression on her face. Carson had been her boss, he and Dash. And then when her brother had died three years ago, Dash had become her only boss and she had liked it that way.

Jensen should hire his own damn personal assistant, but he seemed perfectly content to dump his workload on Kylie and annoy the piss out of her in the process.

“Gee, thanks,” she said in a tone to match her glare. “Nice to know I pass muster around here.”

Jensen strolled into her office, uninvited. But then he’d never come in here if he waited for an invitation. Kylie had made it clear she didn’t want him anywhere near her. Another thing he chose to ignore.

He took a seat in one of the chairs in front of her desk, and she made a mental note to get rid of them. They were unnecessary. Jensen and Dash did all the entertaining of their clients. There wasn’t a need for anyone to ever enter her office. She did her job quietly and efficiently, never drawing attention to herself. Only for some reason, Jensen seemed determined to invade her personal space. A fact that had increasingly frustrated her in the weeks since he’d joined Dash in their consulting firm.

“You aren’t sleeping,” he said in that same straightforward tone he’d used to tell her she looked like hell.

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His gaze penetrated her, raking over her features, and she knew what he saw. What she saw in the mirror every morning. Eyes haunted with the past. Deep shadows seemingly permanently etched underneath her eyes. She knew what she looked like. She didn’t need this arrogant as**ole to point it out to her.

“I wasn’t aware that my appearance or sleep habits in any way interfered with my duties here.”

Her sarcasm was wasted because Jensen just let it roll off him, much like he did everything else. Never once had she seen him express any sort of emotion. He didn’t get upset or angry but neither had she ever seen him express happiness or excitement. Nothing but that steady gaze that saw too much. Peeling back the layers of her skin—and her mind. She hated it. She felt like a bug under a microscope. She wouldn’t put it past him to know when she went to the damn bathroom.

He was a man who nothing escaped his notice. He was quiet, observant. He stood back and observed others. It suited him well for the career he’d chosen. But it discomfited her. He could save his scrutiny for the consulting jobs he and Dash took on. Those companies needed his unbiased and discerning eye. She sure as hell didn’t need it or want it.

“You do a damn fine job, Kylie. I don’t believe I’ve ever given you reason to doubt my confidence in your abilities. If I have, then I apologize. Dash and I would certainly be lost without you.”

She blinked in surprise over the unexpected praise, and unwanted color washed into her cheeks, warming her skin. She didn’t want to acknowledge the brief surge of pleasure his veiled compliment had brought.

“When was the last time you slept?” he asked pointedly, still staring at her, studying intently.

“Last night,” she said lightly. “Just like I do every night.”

“Bullshit.”

Her eyes widened at the growl in his voice.

“If you’re even getting a few hours of sleep I’d find that hard to believe. Why don’t you take some time off? Go somewhere. Relax. Take a vacation. Dash says you’ve never once taken off. Only when Carson died.”

Kylie flinched, unable to temper the surge of grief that hit her square in the chest.

“You can say it,” Jensen said in an almost brutal tone. “He’s dead, Kylie. Joss has moved on so why can’t you?”

She slapped her palms down on her desk and stood, staring him down, not giving a single inch.

“He was my family,” she hissed. “My only family. He was all I had left in the world. He was the only person who loved me, who protected me, and now he’s gone. If you think I can just blithely forget that and go on about my life like his death didn’t affect me, you can go to hell.”

“There. Finally some emotion, Kylie. Even if you’re spitting mad. But at least you’re not acting like some goddamn robot working on autopilot. Would it kill you to be human like the rest of us? Shit happens. You deal with it, pick up the pieces and move on. Just like everyone else in the human race. You aren’t special. You aren’t the only person who’s had a shitty past and who’s lost someone they love.”

Fury clouded her vision, making the room go hazy. Anger tightened every one of her features and for a moment she was paralyzed, unable to respond around the knot in her throat choking her.

“How dare you?” she raged. “Who the hell are you to judge me? You don’t know a goddamn thing about me. Get the hell out of my office and don’t come back. If you want or need something, you can damn well e-mail me, call me or text. But do not come back into my office.”

He didn’t react to her outburst. To her astonishment, a faint smile glimmered on his lips.

“I know a hell of a lot more about you than you think. But you’re right. I don’t know everything. But I plan to change that. Starting now. You and I are going to be working very closely over the next few weeks because Dash and Joss are going on their honeymoon. We’re trying to land a contract with Simpson & Gerrick Oil and it’s a big one. They’re downsizing and they want to cut the fat. Get rid of the unproductive workers. Rearrange duties. Decide who goes and who stays. And that’s going to fall on you and me.”

Kylie’s eyes widened. “I don’t have any experience in handling that. I work in the background, Jensen. You know that. I run the office. You and Dash are the cutthroats.”

“And you don’t have the heart for it, do you, Kylie?”

She flushed. Admitting her weaknesses wasn’t on her top-ten list of things to reveal.

“You act the bitch. You come across as abrasive, even to the people who love you. I wonder why? Are you so afraid of loving someone, of getting close to someone and losing them like you lost Carson? Because you don’t fool me, Kylie. Not in the least. Underneath that tough-as-nails exterior lies a vulnerable, bighearted woman and she’s who I want to pull out. And I will. Take it to the bank, sweetheart. You and I are going to be seeing a lot more of one another so get used to it.”

“Get out,” she said through clenched teeth. “I don’t have to put up with this in my own office.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter where it’s said. It doesn’t change what will be. And what will be is you and me, Kylie. I go after what I want and I don’t fail. Ever.”

She snorted, her blood pressure rising, her breath hitching in her throat. His words terrified her and yet there was something about them that made her pulse kick up several notches.

Jensen Tucker was everything she didn’t want in a man. Not that she wanted any man. But especially not a dominant, alpha, overbearing male. There was no way in hell she’d ever put herself in a position of vulnerability again and no matter what woman was with Jensen, she’d definitely be vulnerable. Hell, she’d be eaten alive. Jensen would chew her up and spit her out in ten seconds flat.

“Don’t hold your breath,” she said in a frigid tone. “It will never happen. And so help me, if you ever even hint about this again, I’ll slap a sexual harassment suit on you so fast your head will spin.”

He grinned, surprising her with his reaction. He stared lazily at her, his gaze stroking up and down her body, making her feel as though he’d just undressed her.

“Something else you should know about me, sweetheart. I love a challenge. Telling me no is like waving a red flag in front of a pissed-off bull.”

“I’m not your sweetheart. Save it for a woman who gives a damn because I’m not her.”

His grin got bigger and she swore this was the first time she’d actually seen the man smile. He was always so quiet and brooding. He didn’t frown, but he didn’t smile either. He always wore an inscrutable expression that drove her crazy because she never had any clue what he was thinking.

Only now she got the distinct impression he’d been thinking about her. A lot.

She mentally went through every single one of her favorite four-letter curse words and added a few with extra syllables for good measure.

“Let me make this simple for you since you love a challenge. I’m not a challenge, Jensen. I will never be a challenge because you don’t have a chance in hell with me. You’re out of your goddamn mind anyway. What the hell would a man like you see in me? According to you I’m scared of my own shadow. I’m timid, apparently I look like hell and have as many issues as People magazine.”

He rose, ignoring her outburst, which only infuriated her more. He seemed utterly unfazed by her cutting remarks. Then he leaned over the desk so they were nose to nose. To her surprise he traced one finger over the dark smudges under her eyes.

“Get some help, Kylie,” he said softly. “Go to a doctor. Get something to help you sleep. See a shrink if that’s what it will take. You can’t keep up like this forever. Sooner or later you’re going to crack. And then you’re going to fall apart and shatter. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the people who love you and are worried sick about you.”

And then before she could respond to that particular bit of nonsense, he turned and strode out of her office, closing the door with a soft bang.

She sagged into her chair and dropped her face into her hands, suddenly so weary that she couldn’t even hold her own head up.

He was right and that pissed her off even more. She was walking a very fine line between sanity and insanity. She wasn’t sleeping. Her sleep was too fractured by nightmares. Of the past. The demons of her past and how they still controlled her present.

But see a shrink? Ask her doctor for sleeping pills? That would be like admitting defeat and she was not a quitter, damn it. Not her. She’d survived hell and she was past that now. Wasn’t she?

Or was she every bit the prisoner now that she’d been as a child? Her father’s abuse was as recent as yesterday in her mind. Because she couldn’t forget. She couldn’t just get over it. Couldn’t make peace with her past.

She closed her eyes, another wave of fatigue nearly flattening her. Sleep. She just needed one night without the nightmares that visited her so frequently. Maybe she’d stop on the way home and get some over-the-counter sleep aids at the pharmacy. Then there would be no embarrassing, weak trip to the doctor and certainly no visits to a damn shrink where she’d lie on a couch and bare her soul.

Oh hell no. Hell would freeze over before she ever allowed anyone to know her torment and shame.

WHAT was it about the woman that drove him to the brink of insanity? Jensen was absorbed in his thoughts as he stalked back to his office. He had a mountain of paperwork, contracts to look over and sign, if no changes were necessary. For the next two weeks, he was solidly at the helm while Dash took Joss away on their honeymoon.

Dash was happy. Disgustingly so. Now that he’d made up for his fuck-up of monumental proportions. Joss was a good woman. The best. Dash was damn lucky to have his heart’s desire. A beautiful, submissive woman who’d granted Dash everything. Her trust, her love and her complete surrender.

In other words, the complete opposite of the woman who preoccupied so much of Jensen’s thoughts lately.

Kylie Breckenridge was as prickly as a cactus and yet every time she sent him one of her withering gazes, he got a hard-on from hell. He wanted her so damn much that he couldn’t breathe around her. And that pissed him off.

She was a woman who was strictly off-limits to him. The complete antithesis of the women he liked to fuck. And he said f**k because that’s what it was. His heart was certainly never involved. His need for control precluded any warm and fuzzy thoughts.

It wasn’t that he was a bastard to the women he dominated. He made certain they were cared for, provided for and that they were sexually satisfied.

But Kylie?

Hell. A dominant, alpha male was the very last thing she wanted. If she wanted any man at all. Not that he could blame her. Dash had told him of Kylie’s childhood. It made him shake with rage that she’d been so abused, so shattered by the one person in her life she should have been able to trust for absolute protection. Her father.

But when he looked at her, he saw past that abrasive exterior and what he glimpsed made his heart soften to the point of aching. It made him want to hold her, cherish her, show her how it could be with a man who had her best interests at heart. A man who cared about her.

Hell, did he care? That was the million-dollar question. He cared, but to what extent? Was she, as he’d said, simply a challenge? Something to conquer before he moved on to the next? He was a man who thrived on challenges. It was what had made him successful at a very early age. So just how much did he care about Kylie Breckenridge? Because she wasn’t a woman to trifle with. She’d had enough hurt for two lifetimes, and he damn sure didn’t want to be yet another man who destroyed her.

He didn’t fool himself into thinking he could “fix” her. No one could do that but her. But she had to want to be fixed, and so far she’d shown no signs of doing it herself. Which increased his desire to step in, take over and push her.

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