“Maybe you should focus more on what I’ve gained,” he pointed out. “Because from where I’m standing, I haven’t given up a damn thing, and I’ve gained far more than I ever dreamed of.”

Reassured by the sincerity of his words, she plunged ahead.


“So what does go on there?” she asked with more confidence. Knowing didn’t hurt her. It didn’t involve her. It did nothing more than assuage her curiosity over the lifestyle her two best friends lived.

“The House is a place for people to indulge themselves in all manner of sexual fantasies. Pretty much everything goes. Within reason, of course. It’s not only about dominance and submission. There are plenty of other fantasies that people delight in. It’s a place where they can freely—and safely—indulge themselves.”

“So is it, like, public? I mean do the people who go there act these fantasies out in front of everyone else there?”

It was a little mind-boggling to imagine Chessy and Joss doing whatever it was they did for everyone to see, and maybe a small part of her didn’t want to imagine her friends in those kinds of situations. Definitely an occasion for brain bleach.

“Some do. Some don’t. The option is there for both,” he said with a shrug. “There is a common room where everything is public. But there are also private rooms, monitored by security so no one gets hurt.”

“It sounds . . . different,” she said lamely, not knowing what else to say about something she had no understanding of. The mere idea of ha**g s*x in public gave her hives. She could barely muster the courage to do it in private much less for the world to see.

He chuckled lightly. “It is different. But not so very much for the people who go. To them it’s the normal course of their sexuality. Whatever works. As long as it’s sane and consensual, to each his own.”

Well that certainly put her in her place. And perhaps she needed to not be so judgmental. Who was she to pass judgment on other people anyway? She had so many hang-ups that it would take a psychologist years to sort through, so it wasn’t as if she could talk.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Jensen soothed. “I would never dream of bringing you there. I have no desire for the place any longer. When I first met Dash and we spoke of it, it intrigued me, yes. I even pursued membership. But then I met you. Or rather I met you and then pursued the membership but then once I got it, I had no desire to go. I wanted . . . you.”

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“I’ll never understand why,” she said honestly. “But I’m so glad you didn’t go and that you do want me, issues and all. You give me hope, Jensen. The first real hope I’ve had in my entire life to enjoy a normal relationship. Or as normal as we’ll ever be, I suppose.”

The rueful note in her voice couldn’t be disguised.

“Who needs normal?” he asked lightly. “Normal is how we define it, not others. So everyone’s normal is different. Ours is what we make it. Besides, if not being with you means I’m normal then f**k that. I’d much rather be abnormal with you.”

She grinned, her mood lightening. God, but with her plans for later, she was doing her level best to be a huge wet blanket. Or at the very least, sabotaging her own efforts for that normalcy she spoke of.

Their orders were delivered and Kylie found herself eating rapidly. She was occupied with the rest of the evening. Food was the very last thing on her mind. She glanced up to see that Jensen was finished and she spoke before she lost her nerve.

“You ready to go home?” she asked, eager to get on with her plans for the night.

A spark lit in his eyes. Recognition. Was she that obvious? Or perhaps she was merely that desperate. The thought amused her because she would have never described herself as desperate before meeting Jensen. Now all she could think about was getting him na**d and them being skin to skin.

An uproar close to the door had Kylie picking her head up to see what the ruckus was about. Her mouth twisted in distaste when she saw an obviously drunk—and loud—man being coaxed from the bar by his harried female companion.

She glanced away, not wanting anything to ruin her night.

Jensen paid the bill and then stood and took her hand, pulling her to her feet. He tucked her against his side and they walked to the door and into the night.

She didn’t realize anything was wrong until Jensen went rigid against her. She glanced up in the direction of where he was staring, startled when a low growl rumbled from his chest.

The couple she’d noticed before had evidently taken their altercation into the parking lot. The man had his fist in the woman’s hair and was yelling obscenities at her.

Then to her utter horror, the man struck the woman with his fist, knocking her to the ground.

Jensen lunged for the man, knocking him flat with a well-aimed blow. The man went down. Hard. Kylie stood frozen, unable to react or move as Jensen bent over the fallen woman and helped her to her feet.

Kylie’s heart was thundering against her chest and sweat beaded on her forehead. Nausea rose, sharp in her stomach, and she had to swallow back the urge to rid her stomach of its contents.

“Are you all right?” Jensen asked the woman in a gentle voice. “Let me help you. I’ll call the police and have this bastard locked up.”

“No!” the woman all but shrieked. “Please, just leave us alone. You’ll only make it worse!”

Her voice turned pleading. She grasped Jensen’s hand and shook him, desperation in her eyes and words.

Jensen stared at her in shock and then glanced at where the man lay groaning on the ground.

“You want me to walk away after what he did to you?” Jensen asked hoarsely.

“Please, just go,” the woman begged. “I’ll get him home. He didn’t mean it. He’s just drunk. He has no idea what he’s doing. He won’t even remember in the morning.”

“And how the hell will you explain that bruise on your cheek?” Jensen demanded.

The woman glanced in panic at the man who was trying to get to his feet. “It doesn’t matter. Okay? Just go, please. I’ll deal with him. He didn’t mean anything by it. Please just go. It’ll be worse for me if you interfere.”

Kylie found her feet and her tongue at last. She slid up behind Jensen and tucked her hand into his. He turned as if just realizing she was there. Darkness simmered in his eyes. Rage coiled and burned, his entire body bristling.

“Let’s go, Jensen,” she whispered. “He’ll hurt her more. She doesn’t want you to call the police.”

“Listen to her,” the woman urged. “It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. He’ll regret it in the morning, if he even remembers.”

“That’s no excuse,” Jensen said flatly. “You should have his ass thrown in jail and swear out a restraining order against him.”

Kylie tugged at his hand, desperate to get away before the situation escalated. The man was struggling to his feet and whirling, obviously looking for his companion. The woman he’d just flattened with his fist.

The woman threw them one last desperate look and then went to the man’s side, sliding up against him, supporting his weight.

Jensen swore violently under his breath. His entire body quivered against her. His fingers were squeezing hers so tightly that she realized how tenuous his hold on his control was.

She pulled once more, worried he’d go after the man again. To her relief, this time he came with her. The entire way to his car, he kept glancing over his shoulder, worry evident in his gaze as he searched out the man and woman.

“Goddamn it, that makes me sick,” Jensen swore as he guided Kylie into the passenger seat.

Kylie stared out her window as the woman struggled to get the man in the passenger seat of their vehicle. Her heart clenched as she imagined the life this woman must lead. A life where she made excuses for her husband or boyfriend’s abuse. She closed her eyes, only wanting to shut out the images bombarding her from all sides.

The evening lay in ruins, her earlier optimism fading rapidly.

The entire way home, silence lay heavy over the inside of the car. Jensen’s hands were tightly curled around the steering wheel, his stare fixed ahead as he navigated through traffic. Several times she glanced his way but he never took his eyes from the road.

The tension was thick, a tangible cloak surrounding them, almost suffocating in its intensity. She’d seen the terrible rage in Jensen’s eyes and then . . . bleakness. So much grief and sorrow that it had overwhelmed her.

What darkness did he have in his past? They’d only spoken briefly about it. He’d hinted that he had his own demons to fight and the one time she’d asked, he’d steered her away from the conversation, saying he’d tell her later.

Now she realized that she had to know. Now, not later.

She’d been so absorbed in her own issues that she hadn’t given any thought to his, an oversight she intended to correct immediately.

If he’d open up to her.

She flinched because she hadn’t opened up to him but here she was expecting him to bare his soul to her. He knew some of her past, but she knew nothing of his. And if they had any hope of moving forward, they not only had to put her demons to rest, but his as well. Starting now.


JENSEN unlocked the door to his house and ushered Kylie in. He glanced sideways at her to see her face was drawn and pale. She had her arms hugged around herself and was rubbing her palms up and down her skin in agitation.

He swore under his breath because the night lay in ruins. He knew well what Kylie had planned, what she’d likely been working her nerve up to do all week. And now? Who knew what kind of hell she was enduring after that asshole’s behavior in the parking lot.

It went against every grain for him to just walk away when he damn well knew the bastard would hurt the woman again and again. He’d continue to do it until she fought back, until she put a stop to it. But for Jensen to just walk away and pretend he hadn’t witnessed what he did?

It made him sick.

His own demons came roaring to life, no longer contained by the barriers he’d erected over the years. They were simmering just below the surface, scratching and clawing their way out of his mind.


Kylie’s quiet voice shook him from his thoughts. He glanced at her again to see her studying him, her expression troubled.

“Yes, baby?”

“We need to talk,” she said in a low voice.

He nodded, unable to say anything in response.

She took his hand, surprising him with the way she seemed to be trying to soothe him. As if she weren’t the one who’d just revisited hell by watching in real time everything that had happened to her. Only what she’d endured was far worse. Getting smacked in the face wasn’t even scratching the surface of all that had been done to her.

“Come into the bedroom,” she said quietly. “Let’s get into bed and we’ll talk there.”

He pulled her into his arms, simply wanting to hold her for a moment. To reassure himself that she was safe. That she was here with him and not a million miles away in another place and time.

He kissed the top of her head, inhaling the scent of her silky hair. She wrapped her arms around him, hugging him fiercely, as if again she was soothing him and not the other way around.

“I’d like that,” he said.

She drew away but kept ahold of his hand and then tugged him toward the bedroom. When they entered, she went to the drawer where most of her clothing was and pulled out a pair of pajamas.

She stripped efficiently, not at all bothered by the fact he could see her. He was relieved that for the most part she didn’t seem too traumatized over the night’s events. Perhaps he was the one reeling the most. Seeing the woman brutalized in the parking lot had brought back painful memories for him. A feeling of helplessness had gripped him when the woman had pleaded with him not to call the police.

God, he never wanted to feel that helplessness again.

His hands were shaking. He hadn’t even realized it until Kylie came over to him and slid her hands into his, squeezing in a comforting manner.

“We need to get you undressed and ready for bed,” she said.

He stood there while she undressed him piece by piece. She moved slowly and almost reverently, as if she’d taken over the role of caregiver, one usually assigned to him. And yet he allowed it, savoring the sensation of having someone who loved him to care for him when he was vulnerable.

Only with this woman would he ever allow this side of himself to be exposed. With no one else had he ever felt secure enough to allow control out of his grasp.

When he was down to his underwear, she guided him toward the bed, pulling the covers back so they could get in.

As soon as they were both settled in, Kylie snuggled into his arms, pillowing her head on his shoulder.

“What happened tonight, Jensen?” she asked gently. “Aside from the obvious. I saw the look in your eyes. I saw more than anger or rage. I saw grief and . . . despair. You once told me that I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the demons of their past. Will you tell me about them now?”

He closed his eyes a moment, wondering just how much he should tell her. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell her or didn’t trust her enough to share. He worried that it would bring back unpleasant memories for her if he related his own tormented childhood.

As if reaching into his mind and plucking out his thoughts, she cupped his jaw and smoothed her hand over his cheek.

“Tonight is about you,” she said in a soft voice. “I don’t want you to worry about me. For once, let me be the strong one for you. I’ll listen. To whatever you tell me. And I’ll never tell anyone else. You can trust me.”