He just wanted . . . her.
“All right,” she finally said in a husky voice that made him go even harder. Because there was capitulation in her voice. Not quite submission, but it was close and it fired his blood, made it sing through his veins, because just this once, he’d won.
“I’ll meet you at the restaurant at seven,” she said.
She lifted her gaze challengingly to his, as if to dare him to argue with her statement. He merely smiled back. He’d allow her this small victory because the bigger one was already his. Dinner. Just the two of them. Yeah, they’d talk business, but he also planned to delve deeper into this intriguing woman. Figure out what made her tick. And he’d pick her up the next day and drive her to their meeting. Which meant she was dependent on him the entire day.
He liked that idea. Liked it too damn much. Her dependent on him. The hell he’d ever let her down or make her regret her grudging trust. Oh, he knew she didn’t trust him yet. That would be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Baby steps. Take it one small victory at a time.
“Seven it is,” he agreed.
She was surprised. It showed on her face. She had already been bracing herself for an argument, her shoulders squared and chin thrust upward in defiance. Even that aroused him, almost violently.
He might like submissive women, but submissive didn’t mean being a doormat. He loved an independent woman perfectly capable of making her own choices. Submissive women, or at least the ones he’d been with, chose to submit. Chose to offer their surrender into his keeping. And that was a very powerful thing indeed.
He wanted a strong woman. Someone who didn’t need him and what he offered but wanted it. That made all the difference to him. He wanted someone who could stand up for herself and not back down. Who would go toe-to-toe with him and meet him halfway.
In return? He’d lay the world at her feet. She’d never want for anything he could give her. He’d pamper her, utterly adore her, worship her and cherish her.
He ached to do that for Kylie. Had ached for that since the very first time he’d met her when they’d had dinner at Dash’s that night. He’d seen the shadows under her eyes, had seen the torment she hid from the world. And he wanted nothing more than to be a balm to the agony she’d endured and still endured to this day.
But it would require infinite patience on his part. Patience had never been high on his list of good qualities, but for the right woman? He could exert the patience of Job.
She gathered the papers, already scanning the contents. He could see her mind working furiously, taking it all in. He knew well she was an extremely intelligent woman with an eye for business. Just as he knew she was wasted in her current job. Even if things never worked out for them the way he intended, she’d still make a valuable asset as a partner one day. If he didn’t frighten her away first.
“If that’s all,” she said absently, still absorbed in the paperwork, “I’ll get back to my office and start going over this. I’ll have my ideas ready by our dinner Wednesday night.”
He smiled again, taking in her adorable features. For just one moment, the shadows that seemed a permanent fixture in her eyes had been removed and a determined fire had replaced them. He could sense her excitement, her anticipation. She wanted to prove herself. She was rising to his challenge beautifully and he couldn’t wait to see the results.
He knew she wouldn’t let him down. That she was far more intelligent than either Carson or Dash gave her credit for. It wasn’t that either man belittled her or didn’t believe in her abilities. They were just too emotionally involved and their instincts were to protect her. He understood it, even agreed with them to a certain point.
But they’d done her no favors by sheltering her so vigorously. She needed more of a challenge. Needed an outlet for her analytical mind and intelligence. A trained monkey could do her current job. Answer phones, schedule appointments, ready contracts for signature and run the office.
But he was offering her a hell of a lot more.
And when in her life had she ever felt she was an equal to anyone else? She’d lived her life as a victim. With good reason. But it was time to move beyond being that victim and become a survivor. A survivor who rose above her past and kicked the present’s ass.
If he could have any part in that at all, whether they entered a relationship or not, he’d be fiercely proud of her.
SHE couldn’t believe she was following through with this lunacy. Kylie rolled to a stop in front of the Capitol Grill and the valet opened her car door to assist her out. After collecting her ticket she headed inside the darkened interior.
The restaurant screamed rich old farts, or at least it catered to that crowd. The furnishings were very masculine and portraits of rich old farts even dotted the walls. She glanced down selfconsciously, wondering if she was dressed appropriately for this joint. The other women in the waiting area all wore cocktail dresses and plenty of expensive jewelry with elegant, upswept hairdos.
Kylie had worn her hair down. It was either that or a ponytail, and even she wasn’t gauche enough to sport a ponytail to a restaurant like this. But she’d worn a simple black sheath with no sparkles or adornments. It fell to her knees with a gentle flare, giving her room to at least walk, unlike some of those skintight hiphugger jobs that one had to take teeny tiny steps in or face-plant.
And her shoes were flats, though they did have some sparkle to them. Sparkly shoes were her one weakness. Anything with a heel? No. She’d embarrass herself trying to walk in them. But blingy sandals or flip-flops? She had a closetful. She wore a different pair every day to work, and her other weakness, thanks to Joss, was wearing her toenails painted. A different color every week, but her favorite was hot pink. There was something mischievous about having hot pink toes and it was as daring as she ever allowed herself to be.
The rest of her wardrobe was a study in trying not to attract attention. Specifically male attention.
Jensen appeared seemingly from nowhere, melting from the shadows to stand right in front of her. She swallowed, her mouth suddenly gone dry, because while his dress code at work was business casual, usually meaning a button-up shirt—without a tie—and simple slacks, tonight he was dressed in a black suit that screamed wealth and privilege, and the darkness of his clothing only enhanced what she already knew to be true. That this was a man not to be trifled with. He was someone who could crush her like a bug without any effort whatsoever.
But then he smiled, transforming the harsh lines, the almost cruel beauty of his face, so that he became someone more approachable. Someone who wouldn’t eat her alive. Maybe.
She was a fool for even thinking that. For relaxing her guard even for that rare smile from him. She needed to remember that he was a natural-born predator. Strong. Implacable. And so easily capable of hurting her.
“Glad you made it,” he said easily, cupping her elbow as he steered her farther into the darkened interior.
They walked by larger tables, filled with various business types and others dressed more formally. Couples having intimate dinners, waiters hovering with expensive wine to refill glasses. This was Carson’s world—a world he’d created for himself. But it had never been hers, even if Carson had been determined to share it with her.
He’d been determined to rise above his circumstances and go in the opposite direction from their childhood. And Kylie? She seemed to be in a holding pattern, one she recognized even in her denial.
She’d never stepped fully into the present or even tried to embrace it. She was still too firmly rooted in the nightmare of her past, paralyzed and unable to move past it.
That Jensen had nailed her so precisely on it in her office two days ago only made her more uncomfortable with his scrutiny and those eyes that saw far too much.
Jensen courteously seated her, pushing her chair forward once she’d settled into it, and then walked around to the chair directly across from her. At least he hadn’t taken the seat catty-corner to her. But now she’d be required to actually look him in the eye and meet that intense gaze.
She glanced hastily around, noticing, to her discomfort, how intimate they appeared. A cozy corner in a dimly lit restaurant, no other people occupying the tables nearest to them. It was, as he’d promised, a spot where they wouldn’t be overheard. Had he arranged it so no one else would be seated near them or had he simply gotten lucky?
But no, he wasn’t a lucky sort of man. He wasn’t someone who’d leave anything to chance. He’d arranged this as he did everything else in his life. To his liking and his specifications. A delicate shiver snaked down her spine at the raw power emanating from him. It—and he—scared the holy hell out of her.
Yes, this was supposed to be a business dinner, and by resolving that in her mind, she’d been able to make herself go through with it. But now, sitting here across from him in a decidedly intimate setting, she knew damn well this could have been done just as easily in the office.
She hated that he made her so nervous. Hated admitting that weakness to herself. She’d spent her entire life being weak, though she disguised it by being abrasive and even bitchy. She wasn’t proud of those things, but it was far preferable to ever showing vulnerability to another person.
“Relax, Kylie,” Jensen said, drawing her gaze to his.
She saw warmth in his eyes and pondered that oddity. It wasn’t that Jensen was some heartless, cold bastard. But he’d perfected the look. Anyone would think twice about crossing him. Usually his eyes were impenetrable, showing nothing of whatever emotion he was feeling, if he even had them.
But now? There was an odd tenderness in his eyes and it seemed to be directed at her. It was one beat off of sympathy and that got her back up because the very last thing she wanted from this man was pity.
“Did you just scowl at me?” he asked, his lips twisting in amusement.
“No. Yes. Maybe,” she muttered.
“Relax,” he said again, his tone growing as gentle as his eyes had been just moments ago. “I’m not going to bite you. Unless you ask me to. Nicely,” he added with a grin.
Her scowl deepened before she realized he was merely yanking her chain. Something he did with more frequency ever since coming to work with Dash.
“Maybe I’ll do the biting,” she said with a sardonic smile, not even realizing the sexual connotation until it was too late. She’d envisioned snapping at him like a ferocious dog. Not biting him . . . sexually.
But it was obvious that was the way he took it because his eyes suddenly smoldered with a fire that made her shiver again. Yes, this man was dangerous. Far too dangerous for her to bait. It was better to ignore him. And only speak about work. The reason they were here in this damn restaurant to begin with.
Thankfully he didn’t respond to her ill-thought-out remark. But that look . . . It was still there in his eyes, his gaze positively glowing, almost as if he were imagining her biting him and taking much pleasure in the act.
Gah, she had to stop this train of thought and push the conversation to the topic at hand.
“So you’ve read my analysis,” she said in a crisp, businesslike tone. “What do you think?”
He paused a moment and then evidently decided to let her have her way. Again, something she was certain was rare for him. He appeared to her to be a control freak. Was she surrounded by them? Tate, her best friend’s husband, she knew to be in absolute control. Chessy had relinquished it willingly in their relationship. But Dash . . . She still shook her head over that one. Only recently had it come to light—at least to her—that he was every bit as dominant as Tate, and more shocking was that it was what Joss had wanted.
Her head-in-the-sand approach to life likely made her unaware of a lot, and she was happy that way. Wasn’t she?
So much was changing around her, in her very small circle of friends. Dash and Joss married. Happy. Jensen coming on board, replacing Carson. And only Kylie was the same. Predictable, dull, scared-of-her-shadow Kylie.
She grimaced her disgust and Jensen’s eyebrows rose.
“You think I hated it?”
She shook her head. “Sorry. Was thinking of something else.”
“Care to share? It must not have been very pleasant.”
“Just reflecting on what a coward I am and how I live my life with my head in the sand.”
Her frank admission shocked her. She couldn’t believe she’d just blurted it out. She never did things like that. It appalled her that she’d just broadcast her weaknesses to a complete stranger. No, maybe he wasn’t a complete stranger, but he certainly wasn’t someone she’d ever seen herself confiding in. And she couldn’t even blame it on alcohol since they weren’t drinking wine.
“You’re too hard on yourself, Kylie,” he said gently.
She shook her head, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Please. Let’s just forget I said that. I can’t believe I did. We’re supposed to be talking business. What did you think of my analysis?”
He sent her one of those searching looks, one that told her he could see beyond her prickly exterior to the heart of her. The timid, freaked-out heart of her. And that was never a person she wanted anyone to see. Ever again. Only Carson had ever seen her that way. He and their father.
She had to call back the shudder that even thinking of that monster evoked. It took everything she had to sit there, looking at Jensen expectantly, calm and collected, when her insides were a seething, writhing mess.
“It was very thorough,” he said. “And dead-on. I admit, especially when you said you didn’t have the heart for this sort of thing, that I thought you wouldn’t be objective and wouldn’t go right to the heart of the matter when it came to cutting positions.”