Her cheeks warmed under the praise. Her hands trembled and she dropped them into her lap so he wouldn’t see the effect he had on her. As though she needed or wanted his approval.
She shrugged instead, giving him the impression his words had no effect whatsoever.
“I looked at areas where they could reduce costs, and honestly, there was a lot there that is completely unnecessary. They could reduce employee perks, the things that don’t really matter, and not have to reduce benefits, the things that are necessary.”
He nodded his agreement. “I too saw a lot of unnecessary expenditures, and by focusing on those areas, it will eliminate the need to cut some of the positions, though there are those that could easily be absorbed into other jobs.”
She stared thoughtfully at him a moment. “You don’t like cutting jobs. I mean, they aren’t just nameless, faceless people to you, are they?”
She wasn’t at all certain what had given her that flash of insight into his character. It was something in his tone though, and the brief glimmer, almost a grimace, that had registered in his eyes. Perhaps he was more human than she gave him credit for.
“Of course I don’t,” he murmured. “I’m not an unfeeling asshole, Kylie. Those people have families to support. Children to feed and put through college. They need their jobs, however unnecessary they may be to the company’s survival.”
She winced at the guilty stab that tightened her chest. She’d as much accused him of being just that directly to his face. He made her antagonistic and at first she hadn’t known why. Their first meeting had left her off-balance and it wasn’t until later that she’d understood her reaction to him more clearly.
He scared her. Not on a physical level. But on a feminine one. Scared her as a woman. He frightened her. Riled her self-preservation instincts. Ones she was well acquainted with. And she hated that feeling, had sworn no one—no man—would ever make her feel vulnerable and afraid again.
“If I implied you were heartless, I apologize,” she said quietly, hoping he could hear and see her sincerity.
She’d lifted her hands from her lap and rested them on the table and Jensen reached for one, surprising her with the speed of his capturing it before she could withdraw. Almost as if he’d anticipated such a reaction.
“I didn’t think you implied anything. No offense was given or taken.”
She went utterly still as his hand continued to cover hers. He didn’t tighten his fingers around her hand. She couldn’t really even consider it holding hands, but his hand blanketed hers, warm, heavy. Thankfully, her wrist was not facing up or surely he would be able to feel how rapidly her pulse beat.
Desperate to keep the topic to business, she casually pulled her hand away, reaching for her glass of water as if she only wanted a drink and wasn’t breaking free from his grasp. The quick flash of amusement in his expression told her he hadn’t been fooled for a moment. Did nothing escape this man’s attention?
As if conceding to her thoughts, or perhaps because her desperation showed, he leaned back and resumed their conversation.
He studied her intently, his gaze more professional than before. This dynamic was one she was more comfortable with. Boss and employee. Not a man and a woman sharing an intimate dinner. A date for God’s sake. She hoped to hell this didn’t qualify.
“I’ve incorporated many of your ideas into my final proposal, as they align with my own. I’ll have the completed analysis for you to look over on the drive to the meeting tomorrow.”
She’d nearly forgotten that they’d already ordered and this was in fact a dinner when the waiter arrived with their entrées. Silence descended as their plates were set, glasses filled with wine, the bottle left on the table at Jensen’s request. Then the waiter silently departed, leaving the two in seclusion once more.
She stared down at the filet and lobster she’d ordered. They looked succulent. Perfectly cooked and yet she was so unnerved by . . . Jensen. It was him. She’d certainly had dealings with other men. It wasn’t as if she’d avoided any and all contact with them in her adulthood. But none of them had ever made her feel as starkly vulnerable as Jensen did. And he was absolutely the kind of ruthless man who’d exploit any weakness, take advantage and swoop in like an avenging god.
She mentally rolled her eyes. God, Kylie. Dramatic much? You’re a flaming moron. You flatter yourself to even imagine he has any interest in you whatsoever. He just likes pissing you off and you’re an easy target. Eat your damn food and quit pretending this is a date and not the business matter it is before you really freak yourself out.
After chiding herself, something she seemed to do with more frequency since meeting Jensen, she dove into the delicious-smelling food. The flavor burst over her taste buds and she hummed her pleasure before she could call back the sound.
“Good?” Jensen asked.
She glanced up to see his gaze fastened solidly on her mouth. Following the up and down motion of her jaw as she chewed. His eyes glittered predatorily and for a moment she couldn’t swallow.
Finally forcing down the food, chasing it with wine she couldn’t even taste, she nodded.
“It’s wonderful,” she said in a husky voice she didn’t recognize.
God, she was acting like they were out on a date. Making cute and feeling awkward over the sudden absence of conversation.
“I’m glad it meets with your approval,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite places to eat.”
She actually did roll her eyes then. “That somehow doesn’t surprise me.”
He arched one dark eyebrow in question. “Why would you say that?”
She shrugged. “It suits you. Very . . . masculine. Your kind of crowd.”
He pinned her with an imperious look. “And what crowd is that?”
“Powerful,” she said after giving a moment’s contemplation. “Wealthy. When I first walked in I thought, ‘This is a place that caters to rich old farts.’”
He laughed, startling her with the rich, vibrant sound that rumbled from his throat. She would have never imagined laughter to be beautiful. Laughter was alien to her anyway. But coming from a man who rarely smiled, it sounded almost magical. She wanted to hear it again. Savor the sound for the brief pleasure it gave her.
“You think me a rich old fart?”
She grinned then, teeth flashing, and she hoped she didn’t have any food in those teeth. How embarrassing would that be?
“Definitely not old.”
“So a rich fart then. I feel so much better,” he said dryly.
“You have to admit, everything about this place caters to wealth and power.” She gestured to the walls. “How many restaurants do you know of that hang portraits on their walls of older men who look like judges or politicians or bankers or some other guy who founded some corporation and has loads of money?”
His lips twitched and he took another sip of his wine, licking his upper lip to remove the excess moisture. Her breath hitched and she yanked her gaze away from his mouth.
“I know nothing about the whims of the proprietor, or whom he wants to cater to. All I know is that they serve a damn fine steak and their service is impeccable. I’m easy that way, though.”
“You like your creature comforts. Fine food and being waited on hand and foot.”
She didn’t intend it to be an insult, and she hoped he didn’t take it as such. It was merely an observation spoken aloud, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. She didn’t want to encourage anything more than a strictly professional relationship with him. She had friends—good friends—and she wasn’t looking to broaden that small, intimate group. But she might have no choice since Jensen would surely be included in more of her friends’ get-togethers.
He shrugged. “Who doesn’t? Life is short. I choose to enjoy life’s pleasures, even the little ones.”
She sucked in her breath, pain sharp through her chest. He was certainly right about that. Why couldn’t she be as simple as he? She, more than anyone, knew she should move on, quit living in the past, grab onto the good in life. Let go of the bad. The bad was behind her, wasn’t it? She’d moved way beyond her past. And yet? She was stuck much like a truck in the mud, buried to the bumpers. Still allowing her past and fears to rule her present.
Weak. She was weak and she was so damn tired of feeling that way. Acting strong didn’t make her so. It just made her an abrasive, standoffish bitch, and she wasn’t proud of that. Thank God her friends—the people who loved her—accepted her, warts and all. She couldn’t even contemplate her life without them. That unconditional love and support.
She’d very nearly botched things royally with Joss. She’d said unforgivable things to her sister-in-law. Things that had hurt Joss and had made Kylie feel an inch tall. But Joss was . . . Well, she was Joss. A sweet and loving heart incapable of holding a grudge or withholding her forgiveness. Kylie wished with all her heart that she could be more like Joss.
“That’s a very good philosophy to have,” she said, able to admit it even if she wasn’t able to practice it. Yet. But she was determined to get there. One day. And soon, damn it.
He nodded. And as she suspected he would do, he said, “One you should adhere to.”
“We were talking about you, not me,” she said lightly, directing the conversation away from her. Always away from her. Anything beyond the superficial pleasantries with her was strictly off-limits. She’d already allowed him to see far more than anyone ever should.
“Would you care for dessert?”
She blinked at the abruptness and his instant acceptance of her diverting attention away from herself. It would seem he had at least some give to him. Who knew?
Then she glanced down at her half-eaten entrée and smiled ruefully. “No. I’d much rather fill up on the rest of my steak and lobster. It’s delicious and there’ll be no room for anything more. Besides, we should be going soon. Early morning for us both tomorrow.”
She forced the same lightness into her tone so it wouldn’t seem as though she was in a hurry, dismissing him. But again, that gleam in his eyes told her he saw far more than she was comfortable with. She was beginning to think he was a damn mind reader with extrasensory perception.
“Finish then, but take your time. Tomorrow morning is no earlier than any other business day for us. I know well what time you’re in the office every morning and it’s certainly not eight.”
Of course he would know. She punched no time clock. She was salaried and Dash had always been absolutely flexible with her hours, though she never took advantage of that. It had been easy to lose herself in work after Carson died. It kept her occupied, an outlet. At work she could blank out her grief and desolation. At home, she didn’t have any distractions. And at home, she was alone. Achingly alone. So she was always in the office between six thirty and seven each morning. Normally before Dash ever came in.
But with Jensen’s arrival, to her annoyance, he often beat her in and was in his office when she entered her own.
She was nearly finished with the succulent feast before her when she glanced up and saw a man walking from the far right of the restaurant toward a table in the back. Not very far from where she and Jensen sat.
She froze, the food she’d consumed now sitting like lead in her stomach. Bile rose and her hand shook so badly that she dropped the fork, the noisy clang startling in the silence.
She knew her face had drained of blood. She was utterly paralyzed and she couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t force much-needed air into her lungs. Her chest constricted tighter and tighter and her throat followed suit until she was well into a full-blown anxiety attack.
Perspiration beaded her forehead and upper lip. The desire to flee, to run as fast as she was able and to get as far away from this place as possible seized her. But she couldn’t make her legs obey. Couldn’t even manage the simple act of breathing, much less acting on her desire to get away.
And then Jensen was right in her face, kneeling on the floor next to her chair. His hand jerked her chin so she was forced to look at him and away from the man who was now seated, alone, several tables away from theirs.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded sharply. “Damn it, Kylie, breathe. You’re going to pass out if you don’t start breathing now.”
She tried to obey the forceful command even though it humiliated her beyond measure that he was witnessing her falling completely apart. But her lungs were frozen, her chest so constricted she hadn’t a hope of breathing.
An anxious-looking waiter immediately appeared, offering his assistance, asking if she needed help. Jensen turned on him, his face a black thundercloud.
“Leave us,” he barked. “She’ll be fine.”
Would she? She didn’t feel fine. She didn’t feel as though she’d ever be fine. A wave of despair hit her and the room swayed around her. She knew she was precariously close to blacking out.
“I have to go,” she croaked out. “Now. I have to leave. Now,” she said again, with more emphasis.
The words were hard to form around her starving lungs, the knot in her throat making her voice hoarse and raspy.
Jensen did a quick scan of the room, following the direction of where she’d been staring when she’d freaked out. Shame rolled over her, wave after humiliating wave.
“Who is he?” Jensen asked in a menacing tone. “What the hell did he do to you?”
The barely controlled violence in his voice made her shudder. Black spots danced in front of her eyes and she tried again to pull in a breath, anything to ease the horrible pain in her chest.