“Maybe we should wait in the kitchen,” she hedged, uncomfortable with the quiet that had descended.

He glanced at her, his gaze indecipherable. It wasn’t warm like she’d become accustomed to. Just seeking. Had she committed some dating faux pas she was unaware of? God, she hated this. Surely there were rules or something.

“Look, uhm, you should know I really suck at this,” she said lamely.

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Amusement glimmered in his eyes. “Breathe, Kylie. Like I told you before. It’s all right. We can go back into the kitchen if that makes you more comfortable. Why don’t you set the table and I’ll check on the progress of the chicken.”

Relieved to have something to break the awkwardness, she eagerly rose and headed back to the kitchen. Jensen’s hand on her shoulder stopped her just as she reached the bar.

“Relax, okay?”

His voice was soothing and as gentle as his touch. Her shoulder sagged beneath his hand and she turned.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “I told you I suck at this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t date. I don’t know how this is supposed to work.”

He put his other hand to her shoulder and pulled her carefully into his embrace. He tucked her head beneath his chin and simply hugged her. It baffled her that such a mundane thing as a hug from this man instantly calmed her.

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“It’s supposed to work however we make it work,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have no expectations for you to fulfill, Kylie. I merely want to spend time with you. Share a meal and enjoy your company. That’s all. Nothing more.”

She groaned. “I’m an idiot. You can say it.”

His body shook with laughter and then he patted her on the behind. “Go set the table and let me finish my pièce de résistance.”

She busied herself putting out plates and silverware and then got fresh wineglasses and placed the opened bottle on the table just as Jensen took the casserole dish from the oven.

It smelled heavenly and there was oodles of gooey, melty cheese bubbling over the bacon and the chicken. Her stomach rumbled in appreciation as he set it down on the table.

“It looks fabulous,” she said. “Is there anything you can’t do? You’re like Superman or something. I bet you don’t suck at anything.”

He pretended to give the matter serious consideration before grinning at her. “I guess it’ll be up to you to find all my faults. And believe me, the list is long, as I’m sure you’ve already surmised during our somewhat short acquaintance.”

She marveled at just how different he seemed around her. Somehow lighter and not as . . . broody. She’d had the thought before but it was reinforced all the more now. He no doubt was good for her, but maybe she was also good for him? It made her feel better to think so.

“I don’t suppose we did get off on the right foot,” she admitted ruefully. “I’m willing to admit that I was mistaken about you. You aren’t quite the ogre I thought you to be.”

He arched one eyebrow as he dished out portions onto the plates. “Not quite? So there’s still room for some ogreness in your dissection of me?”

She grinned at the mock seriousness of his question. “That remains to be seen, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“So very generous, this woman I’m cooking for.”

Her smile broadened, all the early awkwardness dissipating. It was starting to feel like a real date. Like two people flirting and verging on the cusp of something new. Good God, an actual relationship even.

Okay, she had to stop that line of thought or a panic attack would hit her full force. She focused instead on the delicious-smelling plate in front of her and dug in with her knife and fork.

The first bite hit all her taste buds in just the right spots. It was perfectly seasoned, tender, the homemade honey mustard sauce utter perfection, and bacon and cheese? It was a well-known fact that it was pretty damn hard to ruin anything by putting bacon and cheese on it.

“This is wonderful,” she breathed as she swallowed her second bite. “A man who looks like you and who can cook. I can’t imagine why you’re still single.”

There was a brief flicker in his eyes, gone almost before she registered it was there. But there had been something. A shadow. A remembrance. A sore spot, evidently, judging by that betraying flash. But it was quickly gone, replaced by that warm smile that she loved so much.

“Perhaps I’m merely waiting on the right woman to settle down,” he said sagely. “One can never be too finicky when choosing the person they want to spend their life with.”

“Boy, did you say a mouthful,” she muttered. “I couldn’t agree more. Or in my case, it would be more applicable to say that there is no desire to choose that person.”

He studied her a moment, pausing in eating his meal. It was that intent, steady stare that told her he was reaching into the heart of her, like he could read her mind and pull out every secret. His scrutiny made her feel vulnerable and she didn’t like that at all. Especially when she’d admitted how very safe she felt around him.

“So you never intend to find the right guy? Settle down, have a family, fall in love. Not necessarily in that order mind you. Usually love comes first and then the rest, but these are modern times after all. I’d say there no longer is a rhyme or reason to relationships.”

“God, we sound like an episode of Dr. Phil,” she said with a grimace.

He laughed. “And yet you avoided the question. Sorry if I’m getting too philosophical, but you fascinate me and I’ve made it my mission to figure you out. What makes you tick, what makes you happy. Or rather what it will take to make you happy.”

She blinked in surprise. “Why would you care? This is technically our first date. Surely you can’t be thinking of all of those things yet.”

He shrugged. “One never knows when the one will walk into his life. It pays to be prepared. Besides, like I’ve said, you fascinate me. You’re a puzzle I haven’t quite put together yet.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out I have more issues than TIME magazine. You know my history, or at least the major points. No need for all the sordid details. So I’m sure you can understand why I’m not lining them up in the dating department nor am I freaking out because I haven’t found my soul mate at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I figure if it does ever happen, I have plenty of time to figure it all out. For now I just concentrate on living. Surviving. Taking it day-by-day. It’s what has gotten me this far. If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.”

“Such cynicism and pragmatism from someone so young is astounding,” he observed. “You lay it out so casually, as if it doesn’t bother you one way or another, and yet there’s something there. Maybe others don’t see it. But I do. You want those things, Kylie. You just haven’t worked up the courage to reach out and take them. Nor have you admitted to yourself that you do have needs just like everyone else.”

“Do you have a degree in psychology or something?” she asked with narrowed eyes. “Because I swear you sound like a damn shrink.”

He chuckled and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Nope. Just observations on life and my experiences with people.”

“With women, you mean,” she muttered.

“That too,” he said, unruffled by her correction.

“Just how many women have you been with?” she blurted. Gah! There she went again. Just spewing stuff out without reason or thought. It made her sound like some jealous shrew. Quickly trying to cover up her gaffe, she amended her statement.

“I mean submissive women. Or have all of your relationships revolved around the dominant/submissive lifestyle?”

“I don’t keep count,” he said dryly. “There have hardly been enough to need a catalog. I’ve already told you I don’t f**k around nor have I f**ked my way through countless women. I’m not that much of a bastard. I’ve had casual sex, yes. I’ve had relationships. More than five, less than a dozen.”

She blinked in surprise. “How old are you anyway?”

“Thirty-five. You look surprised. Why?”

She shook her head. “Most single thirty-five-year-old men have been with far more than a dozen women. It just surprised me, that’s all. I wasn’t judging you. Or condemning. I was genuinely curious about your relationships, and if you enjoy having a submissive woman, why then did those relationships end?”

“They weren’t the one,” he said simply.

His response puzzled her. “How do you know when you meet the one?”

He smiled then, his eyes warming, giving her that heady pleasurable glow that was ever present when he looked at her that way.

“I’ll know.”

She let out a snort of aggravation. This was a man who could well drive her crazy. Crazier than she already was. Vague. His words full of hidden meaning. Some innuendo she was supposed to catch on to. And maybe she was able to read between the lines but was too chickenshit to admit that or to venture into the area of understanding.

“So you believe in love and all that accompanies it? Undying loyalty, fidelity and trust?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

He seemed genuinely confused that she spoke so blithely of such an important issue. And she supposed it was important to other people. Just not to her. Love to her was a four-letter word and not the good kind. She’d seen the many manifestations of love in her lifetime and she wasn’t sold on the concept, even if her two best friends were disgustingly happy and head over heels in love with their husbands. She saw Chessy’s unhappiness and knew that love wasn’t a cure-all and that in fact, love was often a complication. It certainly wasn’t an inconvenience she wanted to suffer.

Love meant giving up the essential part of herself. Her trust. And that wasn’t given lightly to anyone. Loving someone meant making yourself vulnerable. It meant placing your emotional well-being into another’s hands. No thanks. She’d seen the turmoil Joss had suffered as she and Dash had struggled in their relationship. She saw the effects of love in Chessy’s eyes. Saw the hurt and pain brought to you by the letter L. Love.

She finally shook her head when she realized he was waiting for an answer to his question.

“I’m not saying I don’t believe in it, I guess. I mean obviously Joss loves Dash and he loves her. She loved Carson and Carson loved her. And while I know Chessy is currently unhappy, I do know that she loves Tate and that Tate loves her. But love is messy and complicated. It seems much simpler and safer to just avoid that kind of emotional entanglement.”

“You’re a hard-core cynic,” he murmured. “I hadn’t realized just how much of one you were. You’re going to be a tough nut to crack, baby, but I’m up for the task. I’ve never backed down from a challenge and I don’t plan to start now.”

She stared incredulously at him. The things she’d said to him had sent every other man she’d ever attempted to date running for the door like the hounds of hell were after them. And yet Jensen wasn’t remotely put off by her “issues.” If anything they seemed to make him more determined to break through those walls she’d erected. Walls that had been solidly in place her entire adult life and most of her childhood.

She’d learned at a very young age how to protect her mind, her sanity. To shut out the world around her and stay in self-preservation mode. It had served her well, but had made personal relationships impossible. Because who wanted to deal with such a head case, much less make a commitment to one?

She glanced down at her plate, surprised to see it was empty, then she looked over at Jensen’s to find he too was finished. What now? Once again, she felt the awkwardness of not knowing what came next.

The movie. He had a movie. The plan was to eat dinner and watch a movie. Simple enough. She could handle that.

“You ready for the movie?” she asked, proud of the initiative she took. “I’ll just put the plates in the sink and wash them later. Why don’t you go start up the movie and I’ll bring us both a glass of wine, unless you’d prefer something else?”

“Wine is fine. Your company is what I want most. Anything else is just bonus material.”

Damn it. What to even say to that? He was seducing her with mere words and that heart-melting, warm, fuzzy smile he sent her way every so often. He hadn’t even tried to get into her pants and they were already halfway down.

Disgusted with her raging hormones—why had they picked now to rear their ugly head?—she took the plates and did a quick rinse before leaving them in the sink to take care of later.

She took a moment to compose herself and calm her racing pulse down. It was just a movie. For God’s sake, get it together.

She poured two glasses of wine, though she had no intention of drinking hers. She’d already had her limit and the last thing she wanted was a fuzzy head. Jensen did that to her all on his own. No alcohol needed, though the liquid courage aspect might be appealing.

When she entered the living room, Jensen was leaning back on the couch looking very much at home. The remote was in his hand and he had the movie paused at the beginning. She didn’t even know what they were watching. Did it matter? She doubted she’d remember much of it anyway.

He held out his hand to her, not for the wine, but to take her hand once she placed the glasses on the coffee table. She allowed him to slide his fingers through hers and pull her gently to the couch beside him.

“There, that’s better,” he murmured. “Now the evening can begin.”

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