“What are we watching?” she asked.

“Some zombie apocalypse movie,” he said with a twist of his lips. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had to be careful with my selection so you didn’t read anything into my choice or my intentions.”

“So should I worry that you’ll bite me and infect me with some virulent strain of some super virus?” she said dryly.

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He chuckled. “I like your sense of humor, Kylie. It fits mine well. Though some would likely argue that neither of us has one. But I think we fit just fine.”

Her cheeks warmed because no, no one had ever accused her of having a sense of humor, twisted or not.

He laid his arm over the top of the couch, a silent invitation for her to move closer. She hesitated at first, not wanting to be obvious, but she found herself gravitating to the warmth and strength of his body.

Soon she was cuddled up next to him, his arm hung loosely over her shoulders. His fingers danced idly over her upper arm, eliciting a trail of chill bumps. His touch was like fire, even through her shirt. She tried to focus on the movie but found herself increasingly distracted by her proximity to his body.

At one point she turned to look at him only to find him staring intently at her, his eyes glowing. So very warm. Comforting. Unconsciously she leaned in, not even realizing what she was doing. He met her advance and brushed his lips softly across hers.

It was an electrical shock to her system. She shivered uncontrollably and then he deepened the kiss, his tongue swiping over her lips, licking and then sliding inside to brush over hers.

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He tasted of the wine they’d drunk. That and something altogether different. Heady. Masculine. The taste was undefinable. But she liked it. A lot.

She breathed out a soft sigh as his arms wrapped around her, turning her more solidly so the angle was better. His lips never left hers, his mouth devouring hers hungrily.

She was lost in a cascade of sensation, dizzying, intensely pleasurable and also warm and soothing. Her br**sts ached, pressed flat against his chest. Her ni**les beaded, pushing outward as if begging for his attention. His mouth.

Shocked that she’d have such a thought, she went still, the strong beat of his heart thudding against her chest. His respirations were fast, rushing into her mouth and over her face.

And then he lowered her to the couch, angling his body over hers, pressing hard and heavy down on her. Panic snaked up her spine as dark memories surfaced, clawing their way to the present.

She lost her sense of awareness. Of where she was and who she was with. All she knew was that she was in immediate danger. His strength overwhelmed her. She felt helpless. Weak. Unable to prevent whatever he wanted to do to her.

Blackness gushed through her mind, wiping away all sense of euphoria and safety. Her chest caught on fire as she desperately tried to breathe but found no air. Her throat constricted as she tried to scream. To beg him to stop. To have mercy. Not to hurt her.

And then self-preservation kicked in and she began to fight. She went wild beneath this predator, wanting only to escape the harm he intended. She scratched, kicked, and finally was able to gather enough breath to scream.

Hysteria rose sharp, quickly overwhelming her. She was unaware of the firm hands around her wrists, holding them so she couldn’t hurt him or herself. Of the soothing voice calling her name. Telling her it was all right.

She dimly registered those things, but they were so distant. All she was cognizant of was her will to survive. Not to ever again endure what she’d endured before.

Tears bathed her face and she became aware of a high keening sound. It was coming from her. God, it was her making that god-awful sound. Why wouldn’t it stop?

“Kylie! Kylie! Listen to me. It’s me, Jensen. You’re safe, baby. God, please come back to me. I won’t hurt you. I’d never hurt you.”

The entire room was spinning like some crazy Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair. Nausea rose, swift and violent, and she bolted upward, the bands around her wrists suddenly gone.

She hunched over in a protective position, shielding her most vulnerable parts. Her ribs, her belly, places that could easily be injured. Wetness soaked into her shirt sleeves and she realized she was sobbing. Giant, silent sobs welling from the deepest recesses of her chest.

A strong hand hesitantly touched her shoulder and she flinched, turning, determined to ward off an attack.

“Kylie, God, baby. It’s me. Please, baby. Look at me. See me.”

Jensen’s worried plea broke through the haze. Some of the panic dissipated, leaving her with only humiliation and abject despair. She was broken. Broken. Unfixable. Nothing would ever be right. Not for her. Never again.

She buried her face in her arms and rocked back and forth, too mortified to even look at him. How crazy he must think she was. Not think. Knew.

“Please, just go away,” she begged, her voice muffled by her arms. “Please. I can’t bear it. I’m so sorry. Just go. Please. I’m sorry.”

“Goddamn it, you won’t apologize for this,” he seethed.

The fury in his voice made her wary again and she risked a quick peek at him to gauge his temper, readying herself for the violence that would surely follow.

But he was sitting a distance from her, almost as if he were careful to maintain a barrier between them. A barrier she’d erected. Damn it, but when would she stop freaking out? Could she ever expect to have a normal life? Was it too much to ask?

Another sob welled low in her throat and tears ran like rivers down her cheeks.

“Tell me what to do to help you, baby.”

Jensen’s voice was pleading. He sounded desperate and as out of sorts as she was.

“It’s not your fault,” she choked out. “It’s me. I’m sorry. It’s me. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“The hell I didn’t,” he bit out. “It was a stupid, boneheaded thing of me to have done. I got carried away. That’s on me. Not you. Goddamn it, Kylie. I’m so sorry.”

She lifted her head, shaking it almost violently, tears still running in rivulets down her face.

“No,” she said, her voice cracking. “Not your fault. Please, just go. I just want to be alone.”

He looked uncertain. It was obvious he didn’t want to leave her in her present state but neither did he want to further upset her.

“I’ll be okay,” she said, attempting to reassure him. “I’ll be fine. Just go. I’ve ruined everything.”

“I don’t want to leave you like this,” he said, fury lacing his voice. “I did this to you. I reminded you of him and I’d goddamn die before ever making you feel that way with me. I can’t stomach the thought.”

She lowered her head miserably to her arms, grief overwhelming her. Jensen had been nothing but kind and gentle with her. So very understanding. And she’d repaid him by making him feel like some abusive asshole. Her father. Oh God, why couldn’t she control her reactions? Why did she have to freak out the minute things got heavy?

“Kylie?”

His voice was tentative and seeking. But she couldn’t look at him. Not knowing how she’d made him feel. She shook her head, the words sad and defeated as they slipped from her lips.

“Please just go, Jensen. That’s what you can do for me. And please, don’t bear the burden for what happened. It isn’t your fault. You were nothing but gentle and patient with me. I’m mortified and just want to be alone right now.”

“That’s the very last thing you need,” he huffed out in frustration.

She looked up to see him run an agitated hand through his cropped hair. He looked utterly indecisive, something she’d normally never associate with him. He was a man who was self-assured, if nothing else.

“Please,” she whispered. “Just go. I’ll be fine. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”

Her statement only seemed to enrage him more. “There’s no reason for you to deal with this alone. But if I’m making things worse, I’ll go. It’s not what I want, but for you, I’ll do it. But I don’t have to f**king like it or agree with it.”

She managed a shaky smile through watery eyes.

He hesitated, as if deciding whether to touch her or do anything other than say good-bye. Then finally he rose from the couch, defeat burning in his eyes. She hated that she’d done that to him. That she’d taken him down with her in her never-ending mire of despair.

This was a lesson to her. A hard one, but a lesson nonetheless. She wasn’t capable of a normal, healthy relationship with anyone. She was an idiot to have dreamed, even for a moment, that it was possible.

ELEVEN

JENSEN got behind the wheel of his car and pounded the steering wheel in frustration. Goddamn it! It went against every instinct to leave Kylie in the state she was. Only the knowledge that his presence was making it worse, that she was utterly humiliated and he was only adding to her distress, had convinced him to go.

What he wanted to do was barge back in, take her in his arms and hold her the entire night. Even if it meant spending another night handcuffed to her bed.

The idea that he’d brought back even a moment of her past gutted him. That going forward she would associate her abuse at the hands of a monster with him was more than he could stomach.

Seeing her pale and shaken, utterly broken and in despair, had reopened old wounds of his own. Memories long suppressed crowded to the surface making him feel as helpless as he had as a kid, watching his mother being abused, powerless to make it stop and then feeling the brunt of his father’s rage when he tried to intervene.

No, Kylie wasn’t the only one who had demons to fight. But it was evident that she’d never found a way to cope. She, unlike Jensen, was still rooted solidly in the past. It was as alive and vivid in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.

How the hell was he supposed to break through? How could he ever gain her trust? And why was it so important to him that he did?

Kylie was a woman who was all wrong for him and yet so very right at the same time. She was nothing like the other women he’d involved himself with. She was fragile and so very breakable and being around her meant suppressing everything of himself that made him who he was.

Was she worth it?

As soon as the question fluttered through his mind he already knew the answer. Knew he’d already committed himself to the fact that she was very much worth the effort. But for the first time, failure seemed a possibility and he was not accustomed to failing in anything. Not since he was a child.

While he sat in the driveway of Kylie’s home, he picked up his cell phone and scrolled through his contacts for Chessy Morgan’s number. He hit Send and then put the phone to his ear, waiting for her to pick up, praying that she would pick up.

“Chessy?” he said when a female voice answered. “This is Jensen Tucker, Dash’s partner,” he added hastily so she wouldn’t assume it was a telemarketer and hang up.

“Hi, Jensen.”

Her voice was friendly and wary at the same time, as if she was puzzled over him calling her. Hell, he couldn’t blame her. They’d only met once, though Dash had given Jensen Tate’s and Chessy’s numbers in case there were problems while Dash and Joss were away.

“You know Kylie and I had a date tonight,” he said bluntly. “It didn’t go well. At all.”

“Oh no,” Chessy said in a stricken voice. “What happened? Is she okay?”

“No, she’s not,” he said grimly. “She was hysterical and then humiliated and embarrassed. She insisted I leave and she doesn’t need to be alone right now. I thought maybe you could check in on her. I don’t like leaving her this way but neither will I stay and add to her stress.”

“Of course. Thank you so much for calling, Jensen. It was very thoughtful of you to do. I’ll come right over. She won’t like it, but I’m pushy that way and she loves me, even if I piss her off.”

Jensen smiled, some of the tension easing from his shoulders. Kylie would be in good hands. Caring hands. She’d be with someone who loved her and wouldn’t allow herself to be pushed away. Not like Jensen had.

“Thank you,” Jensen said sincerely. “I’m very concerned about her. I . . . care . . . about her,” he said carefully.

“I think that much is obvious,” Chessy said softly. “Try not to worry, Jensen. I’ll call you if things don’t get better or they worsen.”

Jensen thanked her again and then hung up, backing out from Kylie’s driveway before he gave in to his impulse to burst back through her door and take care of her himself.

IT was a long time before Jensen drifted into an uneasy sleep. And when sleep did finally come, so too did the nightmares he’d thought he’d left behind.

Kylie’s panic and stress had opened a door he’d firmly shut on his past. It brought back so much of what he’d tried to forget. To shove firmly to the back of his mind never to haunt him again.

He’d told Kylie they shared far more in common than she realized, but he’d never intended for her to know just how much. He wouldn’t burden her with that. Ever.

He woke in the firm grasp of a nightmare. He came awake with a gasp, sweat soaking his skin. His fingers curled into fists, lashing out at an unseen attacker. Someone trying to hurt not him, but Kylie. Kylie had replaced himself, his mother, in his nightmares and helplessness gripped him, just as it had so many years ago when he’d been forced to stand by, unable to prevent his father from hurting either of them.

Only now it was Kylie. Hurting. Crying. And he was as helpless now as he had been then. A vulnerability he’d sworn never to suffer again.

He rolled to his side, his breaths coming short and ragged, the images still too bright in his mind for him to settle. What was Kylie doing right now? Was she being tortured in her sleep just as he was? And was there hope for either of them?

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