“But the kind of revenge Carson wanted wasn’t the kind that would land you in jail on a manslaughter charge. He wouldn’t have risked his marriage to Joss. He wanted to see if our father was living well because he wanted to ruin him. He wanted to take away everything he had, if he had anything at all. And he wanted our father to know who ruined him and why.”
“I disagree that he shouldn’t have given you the information,” Jensen murmured. “It was your right and you wouldn’t have done anything stupid. What Carson was negligent in realizing is that you might have gained some closure if you knew he wasn’t a threat to you any longer.”
She frowned. “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I think it’s the uncertainty that gets to me sometimes. Like I’m afraid he’ll pop up out of the blue. He could be dead by now for all I know.”
“I could find out for you if you ever truly wanted to know,” Jensen said quietly.
She froze, a curl of fear winding its way through her chest.
“Maybe one day,” she hedged. “Maybe never. I just know I don’t want to know right now.”
“When you’re ready, let me know. I’ll make damn sure he knows nothing about you. And perhaps I can just verify whether Carson was successful in his quest for vengeance.”
“Thank you,” she said.
She felt . . . deflated . . . all of a sudden. Like a huge weight had been lifted, leaving her sagging. She was emotionally wrung out even though she’d barely scratched the surface of her abuse. Maybe she’d never tell Jensen the entirety of it. Or maybe one day she’d be ready to completely rid herself of the poison that had infected her for so long.
“You’re more than welcome, baby. I love you. And I’m so damn proud of you. Now you just have to be proud of yourself and see what a huge accomplishment it is for you to be where you are right now and for not letting your past overtake your future.”
She grimaced. “It wasn’t all that long ago that I was doing just that.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Kylie. Lighten up. The only one knocking on you is you. Everyone else around you sees what I see. A resilient, fearless woman.”
“I like that,” she said with a smile. “Fearless. Definitely at the top of the list of words I would have never used to describe myself.”
“Then revise the damn list and remove all the derogatory words about you,” he growled.
She yawned, exhausted from the day’s emotional events. “Maybe we can make that list together one day. At the very top, the most important word to describe me, is loved.”
“Always. And you are loved, Kylie. By more than just me.”
“I know that now,” she said, snuggling farther up against Jensen.
“Think you can sleep?” he asked, concern in his voice. “I worry what this will do for you. I know what it did to me when I told you of my past.”
“As long as you’re here, I can sleep,” she said.
He hugged her to him. “Then sleep, baby. I’ll hold you for as long as you want me to.”
FEARS of Kylie being tormented by nightmares kept Jensen up long after Kylie settled into a fitful sleep. And when he finally followed suit, it wasn’t Kylie who had nightmares.
Jensen stood, paralyzed, unable to move, unable to do anything but stare as his father struck Kylie again and again. His dreams, often of his mother being abused while Jensen was unable to prevent it, were now of Kylie in his mother’s stead.
He was watching through the eyes of an adult but trapped by a child’s limitations.
“No,” he croaked out. “Oh God, no. Stop hurting her. Please.”
His father lifted his head and stared directly at Jensen, his mouth twisted into a cruel smile. “You’re worthless. You can’t protect her. You’ve failed her just like you failed your idiot mother.”
And then Kylie called his name. It was a plea for help, one he couldn’t ignore even in his dream.
Finally, finally he was able to move. No longer was he encased by lead. No longer was he in the body of the child he was. He let out a roar and launched himself at his father as his adult self with all the strength he’d lacked when he was just a boy.
He knocked his father away and then lunged for him, wrapping his hands around his father’s throat. He’d stop him this time. He’d never hurt another woman. Jensen was no longer the helpless child he’d been for so many years.
All his hatred and anger poured from him in black waves, giving him even more strength.
He wouldn’t fail his mother this time. He wouldn’t fail Kylie.
He squeezed, watching his father’s face go purple, his eyes bulging at the strain.
Kylie called out to him again, her voice desperate. Hoarse sounding. She was pleading with him. To stop?
Shock froze him. Why would Kylie beg for his father’s life?
This time when she said his name, it was barely distinguishable and was accompanied by a whimper of pain. He struggled through the haze of the nightmare, confused by Kylie’s actions.
And then, as if he’d been doused by cold water, he roused from sleep.
Horror swept through him with agonizing speed. His hand was wrapped around Kylie’s neck, his fingers digging into her skin. Tears streamed down her face as she struggled helplessly in his grasp. Desperately pulling at the hand around her neck.
Oh God, he was going to be sick.
He released her instantly and she fell away, holding her throat and gasping for breath. She coughed and choked, hunched over, her hair in disarray around her shoulders. She huddled on the very edge of the bed, pulling her legs up to her chest protectively. She rocked back and forth, her broken sobs ripped horrific wounds in his soul. Wounds he might never recover from. How could he?
His agonizing cry of her name sounded much like a noise a wounded animal would make.
What had he done? How could he have done something so horrible? He’d become the very monster both their fathers were.
“Kylie, oh my God, are you all right, baby?”
He hovered over her, still shaking from the dream. He was afraid to touch her, but he had to offer her comfort.
He pulled her into his arms, tears wetting his cheeks as he rocked her back and forth.
“I’m so sorry,” he choked out. “Oh God, baby, I’m so sorry.”
Despair settled over him, turning everything to black. Sorrow and regret weighed him down, hammering into his mind.
He’d done the one thing he’d sworn never to do. He’d hurt her.
He was no better than his father. All the things he’d said, all the things he’d never imagined doing to another human being now battered him. The whispers in his mind, the ghosts from his past, taunted him. Mocked him and told him what a hypocrite he was.
He closed his eyes, his thoughts bleak as he realized the magnitude of what he’d done. As he realized the consequences of what he’d done.
Tears blurred his vision. Grief for what he’d lost in the space of a few moments.
He had to let her go.
Kylie was stiff in his arms. She hadn’t made a sound other than the low whimpers of fear. He wondered if she was even capable of speech after he’d nearly choked her to death.
She’d wear bruises tomorrow. Marks that he’d put there.
He would never forgive himself for this.
“I’m okay,” Kylie whispered.
Her hoarse words jerked him to awareness, away from the blackness of his thoughts.
He loosened his hold on her and pulled away, not meeting her gaze. He couldn’t. There was nothing to say, no apology sincere enough for what he’d done. No way for him to make this right.
“I’ll pack your things and then I’ll take you home,” he said gruffly.
Kylie flinched and her head flew up so he could see her wide, frightened eyes. Only now confusion had replaced the fear and uncertainty.
“What?” she whispered.
He winced every time she spoke. She could barely talk in a loud enough tone for him to hear.
“I’m taking you home,” he said, his gaze sliding away from her. He couldn’t sit here and look at what he’d lost. Couldn’t face what he’d done. It was a knife to his heart.
“I don’t understand.”
Her voice trembled and tears crowded her eyes, making them go glossy and wet.
“We can’t be together, Kylie.”
He hadn’t meant the words to come out so forcefully. Or with such heat. But he was dying slowly, with every breath. All his pain came out in those damning words.
“You’re giving up on us?”
The hurt in her voice poured more salt on his exposed wound.
“I love you, Jensen. And you’re just quitting? Just like that?”
“Goddamn it, Kylie. Look at what I did,” he all but roared. “How can you even consider being with a man like me? I could have killed you—I tried to kill you.”
“It was a dream,” she said. “You didn’t mean it.”
Bile rose in his throat. God, she was trying to rationalize his behavior. His thoughts went to the woman he and Kylie had seen in the parking lot the other night. How she’d explained away her husband or boyfriend’s actions. And now Kylie was doing the same thing for him.
He wouldn’t allow it. She deserved better than him.
“Listen to yourself, Kylie,” he said in a cold voice. “Listen to you explain away my abuse. How you rationalize it. Get dressed while I get your stuff together. I’ll take you home tonight.”
“You said you loved me,” Kylie whispered, tears running down her cheeks. “You promised . . .”
“Yeah, what did I promise?” Jensen demanded. “I promised never to hurt you.”
Kylie turned away, presenting her shoulder to him. A shoulder that heaved with her quiet sobs as she began to dress.
It took Jensen half an hour to pack up all of Kylie’s belongings. He shoved them into the trunk of his car and then went back for Kylie, who was now sitting on the sofa in the living room.
Her face was pale, her eyes red and ravaged by tears. Her hair was in disarray, tousled not only from sleep but from what he’d done. His fingerprints shone on her neck, a stark reminder of how close he’d come to killing her.
“Let’s go,” he said shortly.
Kylie rose shakily on her feet. She still wouldn’t look at him, something he was glad for. He had enough regret for both of them.
He got into the driver’s seat as she slid in on the passenger side. The drive to her house was silent, the quiet oppressive and stifling. With every minute that ticked by his sorrow and self-loathing grew until he was certain he would be consumed with it.
He finally pulled into Kylie’s driveway. He got out and headed to his trunk to retrieve all of her things. Stuff she’d brought to his house. Stuff he’d gotten used to being strewn all over his house.
He set everything inside her door, wanting to get this over with as quickly as possible. When he turned to go back to his car he nearly collided with Kylie. He put his hands on her shoulders to steady her and she wrenched herself from his grasp.
With a sigh, he headed toward his car, turning his back on her for good.
“I would have never given up on us like you’re doing,” she called out.
He stopped in his tracks, the accusation halting him.
“Don’t do this, Kylie. Don’t make it even harder than this is.”
“I love you,” she choked out.
He closed his eyes as his wounds began to bleed all over again. “I love you too, Kylie, and that’s why I have to go.”
He fled toward his car, not waiting for her response. He couldn’t take any more. He had to get away before he completely fell apart.
The drive home was a blur. Images of Kylie with his hand wrapped around her neck bombarded him left and right until he was dizzy. The huge knot in his gut grew.
He’d never love another woman. Not the way he loved Kylie.
As soon as he pulled into his driveway, he threw open the door, bolted out and heaved his guts all over the front yard.
KYLIE watched the sun creep over the horizon as she sat in a chair on her back deck, wrapped in a blanket. It was plenty warm, and yet a bone-deep chill had settled in. She had the fleeting thought that she might never be warm again.
Jensen gave her warmth with his smiles, his tenderness, his love. And now it and he were gone.
She wished she could muster the emotional strength to hate him. But all she could see was the desolation and horror in his eyes. The loathing and self-recrimination for what he’d done.
She rubbed absently at her still sore throat where the bruises, shaped into fingerprints, had spread across her skin.
He could have killed her.
It was what he said and what she’d pondered and yet she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. As soon as he’d come out of the dream, he’d released her. He wouldn’t consciously ever hurt her. She believed that with all her heart. So why didn’t he?
He’d nagged at her about her self-confidence and yet he appeared not to have any himself. Or at least when it came to her.
She sighed and stared down at the paper in front of her. Her resignation letter, addressed to Dash. She wouldn’t stick the knife deeper by including Jensen in her resignation.
Her laptop and phone lay on the table next to the letter. She’d spent most of the night Googling and looking up mortgage companies and Realtors. She didn’t need to get a mortgage. She had enough invested to buy a house with plenty left over. Besides, who would give her a mortgage when she was unemployed?
It was hours yet before any of the businesses would open. She hesitated a moment as the idea gripped her. She should go now and place the letter on Dash’s desk. Before he or Jensen would come in this morning.