Or were they too fucked-up to ever be able to build a solid foundation?

Being with her was a hell in itself. Being without her was worse. But if he hurt her . . . He closed his eyes, warding off the invading darkness, the violent spiral spinning round and round his head.

He cursed the fact he was leaving the next day and welcomed it in turns. He hated the thought of being away from Kylie that long, of not knowing how she was doing. If she was eating and sleeping. Taking proper care of herself. But he also welcomed the break. Perhaps it was what they both needed. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it could well be what he needed.

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A break. Like they were some longstanding couple in a relationship where one or both needed to take a step back and gain perspective. They weren’t a couple. They’d only had one official date.

The question was whether she’d ever give them—him—another chance or if he’d f**ked up any possibility at something special with her. They were kindred spirits. Both wounded souls in need of solace. She was a much-needed balm to his senses, to those dark memories that lurked just beneath the surface. But what was he for her?

A nauseated feeling entered his gut once again at the thought that his touch had made her think even momentarily of the sick f**k who’d abused her. It honest-to-God made him want to vomit.

“I can’t give you up, Kylie,” he whispered. “Even if I never had you to begin with. I can’t just walk away even if that’s what you beg me to do.”

He closed his eyes on the fervent vow, holding it close, like a talisman.

The next four days would be the longest of his life. But when he returned? He was coming back to Kylie and whatever it took, they’d face down her demons together.

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TWELVE

KYLIE closed her eyes, mentally getting it back together before she refocused on the stack of memos in front of her. Chessy’s admonishment still rang in her ears. Her friend hadn’t wanted her to go into work Monday. Or Tuesday for that matter. Now it was Wednesday and perhaps Chessy had seen the inevitability of her trying to make her friend stay home because she hadn’t gotten her usual morning phone call, nor had Chessy come over to try and persuade her not to go into work.

It should have comforted Kylie that Jensen had cared enough to ask Chessy to come over, that he hadn’t wanted her to be alone, but somehow Chessy seeing her at her worst just made the edge of humiliation worse. Chessy had insisted on staying the night, and she’d been there when Kylie had woken, screaming, in the throes of a nightmare. God. The idea of anyone seeing her like that made her sick.

It was bad enough Jensen had witnessed two meltdowns already.

She opened her eyes, though the papers still swam in her vision. Her head ached vilely, the product of sleepless nights. Instead of seeking rest, she’d made herself stay awake, too afraid to slide into the blackness of her dreams. She was safe as long as she was awake and able to control her thoughts, her memories. Only when she slid into sleep did her past torment her.

Eventually she’d have to sleep and hopefully by then she’d be so exhausted that her body would shut down and she would sleep dreamlessly.

If she were completely honest with herself, she’d admit that she missed Jensen’s presence in the office. With it just being her for the few days Jensen was gone, the office seemed bigger, so quiet. Intimidating. She hadn’t realized until now just how safe she felt when he was just down the hall. Or in her office bugging her.

She imagined whatever had been between her and Jensen, or whatever it was he wanted, was impossible now. He’d likely keep his distance from her, and who could blame him? Who wanted a stark raving lunatic to deal with?

She glanced at the clock, willing the hours to pass. Not so she could go home and exist in solitude, avoiding Chessy and her concerns. But she was counting the hours until Jensen returned.

Tomorrow. Which meant one more night where she’d do whatever it took to stay awake. Exhaustion was heavy in her veins, bearing down on her shoulders and making her mind muggy and fuzzy.

She lay her head briefly on her desk, resting it on the piles of paperwork to sort through. Just a moment to close her eyes. It was all she needed.

She gave a soft sigh and let her eyelashes flutter closed only to fly open when she heard a noise at her office door. She whipped her head up, instantly regretting that action. The room spun dizzyingly around her as she drank in the sight of Jensen standing in her office door, a grim expression on his face.

Her heart sped up and it shamed her, the surge of utter relief she felt that he was back. A whole day early. She was positively weak with relief.

“What the hell have you done to yourself?” he asked, his voice hoarse with concern. “Jesus Christ, Kylie, have you even slept at all while I’ve been gone?”

She rose defensively, standing straight up, her fingers clenched into tight balls on her desk.

She started to say she was just fine and that it was none of his business, but the room seemed to blacken around her, and she had the sudden urge to sit back down.

She heard Jensen’s biting curse from across the room, seemingly a mile away. And then strangely, she found herself on the floor with no recollection of how she got there.

Her last conscious thought was Jensen’s worried calling of her name. But blackness surrounded her, lulling her with its soft embrace, and she reached for it, because within it she found peace. Finally. Jensen was here. She was safe. She could let go now.

JENSEN quickly gathered Kylie into his arms, pulling her close, checking to make sure she was breathing. He suspected she’d merely worked herself into exhaustion and probably hadn’t slept the entire time he’d been gone, but he couldn’t be too certain.

The soft puffs of her exhalations, the slow rise and fall of her chest, soothed the raw edge of his temper—and his worry.

She looked like hell, and yet she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Dark smudges seemed permanently imprinted below her eyes. Her face looked thinner, drawn. If he thought she looked fragile before, she looked even more so now.

She’d reached that breaking point. The one he’d feared so much. And now it was up to him to go in, take over, and make damn sure she got the care she needed.

He stood, bearing her slight weight with him. Uncaring of leaving the offices unlocked, he carried her into the parking garage and gently laid her in the backseat of his car. When he was sure she was comfortable, he stalked around to the driver’s seat and roared the engine to life. He peeled out of the garage going as fast as safety allowed him.

He had only one direction in mind. His home. Not hers. Not this time. He’d take her where he knew he could keep her safe, where he could be certain she got the rest she needed as well as the care. And she damn well wasn’t going back into work for the rest of the week.

He could work from home and put out any fires that arose. If he knew Kylie, ever efficient Kylie, she’d made certain that everything else that had cropped up had been taken care of. The rest could rot. Dash would be home this weekend and he could take over Monday morning. Kylie wasn’t doing a damn thing for a long time if Jensen had any say. And he would.

Kylie had reached her breaking point and goddamn it but he’d pushed her solidly over the edge. It horrified him, was still an ache in his gut, that he’d reminded her of past hurts. It set his teeth on edge. He only wanted to make it right, however that had to be done. And he only knew one way to do that.

It meant pushing her, but in a different way. He only wanted to take care of her. To allow her to lean on someone else, something he was certain she’d never done. She was a solitary figure, a reflection of himself in many ways. Two lonely, scarred souls. Maybe together they could heal.

Somehow he had to break past her barriers, follow the path to the very heart and soul of her and prove that she could trust him. That she could rely on him, that he’d never willingly hurt her. Nothing in his current thoughts even alluded to sex. That could wait. Forever if necessary.

This wasn’t about sex or making love. He couldn’t very well lie and say that he didn’t want her, that he didn’t lie awake at night aching with need to make love to her. But she wasn’t ready. And when the time did come, he knew he was going to have to do something he’d never done with any other woman.

Relinquish control.

It wasn’t an entirely comfortable thought. It made him feel . . . vulnerable. But however vulnerable he felt, the emotion was tenfold for Kylie. For her he could and would make the ultimate sacrifice. She was worth it. He knew it to his bones.

Some things were just meant to be and he and Kylie were one of those things. He’d recognized it the moment they’d met. She’d been unable to meet his gaze. She was understandably skittish around him. But something about her fragility and the iron core he saw, the resolve and strength in her even as fragile as she’d seemed, just struck a chord with him.

Here was a woman who was meant for him and he hoped to hell he was meant for her.

He’d never been a big believer in fate or destiny, but the moment he’d laid eyes on Kylie he’d realized that she was his destiny. The hell of it was whether he would be hers.

He pulled into his drive and quickly got out, opening the door to the backseat where Kylie still lay unconscious. He wondered if she’d slept at all during his absence. He needed to call Chessy. He’d touched base with her only once, the morning after when Chessy had told him she’d spent the night and Kylie had awakened screaming from nightmares.

He closed his eyes briefly as the pain of that phone conversation hit him all over again. The knowledge that he’d done that to her. Had pushed her too far too fast too soon. He’d been remiss in not checking in more frequently with Chessy, but guilt had kept him from making another call. He’d been a fool. It wasn’t a mistake he’d make again. Ever.

Not again. This time it would all be up to her. She was in the driver’s seat except when it came to matters of her health. That he would solidly take over and he felt zero remorse for what he was embarking on. Kylie needed someone. And that someone was going to be him.

He gathered her gently in his arms and carried his precious bundle inside, kicking the door shut behind him. Bypassing the living room, he walked into his bedroom and eased her down on the bed.

She never even stirred when he pulled the covers from beneath her and then repositioned her so her head was resting on a pillow. He slipped off her shoes but left her clothed. He was in no way taking advantage of her weakened state and she’d be freaked-out enough when she woke in a strange bed. He wanted no question in her mind that he’d not so much as touched her.

He slid the covers up over her body and then tenderly pushed the strands of hair from her face, tucking them behind one ear.

For a long moment he simply stood there staring down at her, filled with the sense of rightness. She belonged here. In his bed. In his home. She didn’t know it yet, but this was where she was the safest. Where he could protect her from whatever threatened her. He’d move heaven and earth to ensure she felt protected.

Had she ever truly felt safe with anyone except her brother? He knew she had good friends, a tight circle of people, only a handful. But he wondered if any one of them ever truly saw to the heart of her. If she ever confided her darkest fears and secrets.

Everything he’d learned about her had been from a third party. But he wanted her to trust him enough to share her past with him herself. Not because he had any morbid curiosity. What he did know sickened him. He simply wanted her trust and knew it wouldn’t be given easily.

But she’d already said that she trusted him on some level. Had said somewhat in bewilderment that she seemed to just blurt out things to him she wouldn’t ordinarily confide. That had to mean something, didn’t it?

Only time would tell. He was a patient man when the reward was worth it. He hadn’t become the success he was by being impulsive or impatient. And he knew that Kylie would present the biggest challenge of his life. Be the ultimate test of his patience and endurance.

He’d have to be strong enough for the both of them because she needed that above all else. And perhaps she would chase his own demons away. She’d certainly challenge his entire lifestyle, his dominance, things he’d ordinarily never surrender to any woman.

She required special handling. He knew this, acknowledged it. It was new territory for him and he didn’t try to delude himself into thinking it would be easy. He needed control. He didn’t just desire it. It wasn’t some kink he enjoyed. It was a necessary component of his existence and yet he’d give it up without a moment’s thought for this fragile woman lying in his bed.

It was unnerving. He could admit that. Tendrils of fear clutched at him, because for the first time in his life he was contemplating giving up the one thing he held dear above all else. Control. It wasn’t something he’d ever do lightly. It wasn’t something he’d even ever considered until now.

Love was sacrifice. It was making the ultimate compromise.

Love? Was that what he felt for Kylie?

He shook his head in confusion. He wasn’t at all sure what his feelings for this woman were. It was certainly too soon to be in love with her. Their relationship was tenuous at best. They had only a fledgling trust that had begun to build and that may have all been ruined on their last night together.

He certainly felt more for her than he’d ever felt for another woman. That much he could acknowledge. But he’d never considered himself in love with a woman before. To be so would have meant relinquishing control over his tightly held emotions. And he’d never entertained such a thing. Until now. Until Kylie.

“Fuck me,” he muttered.

He was in deep. Way deep. And this was by far not a slam dunk. The path before him was long, winding and uncertain at best. It would be the biggest risk of his life. And it all came down to his earlier question. Was she worth it?

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