She cocked her head, curious at the odd note in his voice. “And what are your demons, Jensen?”
His face tightened and his eyes became shuttered. She instantly regretted the innocent question, but then he’d seen her at her worst. Wasn’t she entitled to know something about him? Something that made him vulnerable?
He checked his watch, effectively dodging her question. “I need to get going if I’m going to get back in time for us to make our meeting. Will half an hour be enough time for you to get ready?”
He got up and to her surprise walked around to where she stood and pulled her into his arms. He kissed her. Softly. Just a brush of his lips against hers, but she felt the warmth all the way to her toes. Her entire body tingled. Her br**sts became heavy and aching, her ni**les straining outward. She was grateful that the robe disguised her reaction to such a simple kiss.
“I’ll be back soon,” he murmured.
And then he turned and strode out of her kitchen, the front door opening and closing as he walked out.
She stood there a long time, her fingers fluttering to her still-tingling mouth. What the hell had just happened here? Last night? The entire episode? How in the hell had their relationship taken such a dramatic turn?
She shook herself out of her stupor and headed for the bathroom to shower and ready herself for the meeting with S&G. This was important. Her chance to prove herself. Jensen believed in her. She believed in herself. Perhaps for the first time in her life. And she wasn’t going to let either him or herself down.
“YOU did very well today, Kylie. I’m very proud of you,” Jensen said as they took their seats at the Lux Café. “The CFO was very impressed with your recommendations. I’d say we’re a shoo-in for the contract.”
Kylie flushed with pleasure and ducked her head, but she knew her eyes glowed with happiness. Her stomach had been tied in knots for the entire meeting, especially when Jensen had let her take the lead and make the presentation. He’d sat back, a bystander, as Kylie had outlined their suggestions for minimizing costs to the corporation.
It had shocked the hell out of her that he’d given her control over such an important meeting. This was a huge contract for him and Dash. Dash would likely have a heart attack if he knew just how much leeway Jensen had given her in this meeting.
But after a shaky start, and with Jensen’s confidence in her evident in his gaze, she’d taken control and had crisply and efficiently delivered their recommendations to the CFO.
“Thank you,” she said honestly. “For giving me this chance, I mean. It means a lot to me. I had no idea I could do it. I was scared to death.”
“It didn’t show, though,” he said. “You oozed confidence. You had the CFO in the palm of your hand. Hell, he’d have probably eaten out of it. He was hanging on your every word. I was tempted to knee him in the balls if he didn’t keep his damn tongue in his mouth.”
She frowned. “So you think he was so attentive because I’m a woman?”
Jensen laughed. “No, I think he was attentive because you are an extremely intelligent, well put together, beautiful woman. Make no mistake, Kylie. Your looks certainly don’t hurt, but no businessman worth his salt is going to make such a huge decision based on sexual attraction. He may have enjoyed the view, but you damn well got his attention because of your intelligence and attention to detail.”
Feeling somewhat mollified, she relaxed in her seat as the waiter approached to take their order.
“You have nothing to prove, Kylie,” he said in a soft voice once the waiter drifted away. “The only person who doesn’t believe in you is you.”
She dropped her gaze because he was right. She didn’t have the confidence she should. But damn it, she wanted it. Wanted it so badly she could taste it. She wanted to take on the world and grab on with both hands. Wanted to be someone unafraid to walk into a room like she owned it. But she’d learned from a very young age to be as unassuming as possible and to draw as little attention to herself as possible. It was a matter of survival. Of self-preservation.
As if reading her thoughts, he reached across the table and twined their fingers together. What did it say about her that it no longer startled her when he touched her? That she’d come to like it. Crave it even.
“You’ll get there, baby. It won’t happen overnight, but you’ll get there. I see inside you to the real you. I know she’s there just waiting to break free. And she will. One day.”
“How is it you know so much about me?” she whispered. “Things I don’t even know myself? You haven’t worked with Dash that long.”
He smiled. “I watch people. I study them. It’s helpful in my line of work and, well, in life, for that matter. I’m good at reading people. Knowing when they’re sincere and when they’re just bullshitting me. And my instincts tell me that you’re a fierce, brave woman who’s faced a hell of a lot of adversity in her life but who’s come out stronger for it.”
She laughed, the sound brittle and not at all joyful. “Stronger? I disagree there. I’m scared of my own shadow. Or did you forget that I handcuffed you to the bed last night?”
His expression grew tender. She’d grown to love the way his eyes warmed when he looked at her just so.
“And yet you took them off,” he pointed out. “You trusted me enough to take them off when you were at your most vulnerable. I’d say that was very brave of you.”
She flushed because he had a way of turning around every argument she posed. Made what she deemed as weaknesses, strengths. If only she had as much confidence in herself as he apparently did.
“I’d like to take you to dinner tomorrow night,” he said casually. “And not a business dinner. A date. You, me, no office talk. Just us and we see where this takes us.”
“There is no us,” she blurted, stunned by his invitation.
He arched an eyebrow. “I spent last night in your bed, baby. I’d say that makes us something.”
“You didn’t give me a choice!” she sputtered. “That’s hardly the basis of a date!”
He smiled. “So forget last night then if it bothers you so much. But you know and I know that I’ll be back there. It’s only a matter of time.”
Her throat threatened to close off. She could barely breathe around the knot growing larger by the second. This man thoroughly intimidated her. She found it telling that he didn’t scare her. Not physically. She knew in her bones that he’d never lift a finger to her. It seemed to enrage him, the thought of anyone or anything hurting her. But there were other kinds of hurts. Some more painful than even the physical kind.
“I won’t play games with you,” she whispered.
His eyes lost the playful, flirty glimmer and his expression grew suddenly fierce and very serious.
“This is no goddamn game, Kylie. Not to me. Never to me. You are not a game. You aren’t a challenge, a notch on my bedpost. I don’t f**k around. I haven’t f**ked my way through countless women and I’m not some bored bastard who sees getting with you as a victory.”
She was speechless. Utterly speechless. Her hands shook so hard that she had to put her water glass down because liquid sloshed over the rim, spilling onto the table.
“What do you want from me?” she croaked.
His gaze was direct and unflinching. Grim and unrelenting.
“You. Just you, Kylie. And everything you have to give.”
She was light-headed from holding her breath for so long and she forced herself to breathe as spots appeared in her vision. She had to hold it together and not melt down right in the middle of the restaurant.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” she said softly.
For some reason the starkness of her statement made her want to cry. Tears burned her eyelids but she refused to let them fall. She had nothing to offer this man. Any man. But certainly not someone like Jensen who could have any woman he wanted. Who would never have to look far for female companionship. There was probably a line outside his bedroom door.
“You’re wrong,” he said just as softly.
He didn’t expound. Just kept staring at her with that intense gaze, his eyes never leaving her face, taking in every thought, every reaction. She was certain he could see the tears glittering in her eyes, burning, begging to fall free. She swallowed hard, her head aching with the effort not to allow him to see how affected she was by . . . him.
But he knew. Damn the man, he knew. At least he wasn’t smug. He didn’t look triumphant. He just stared tenderly at her, like he always did, as if he knew exactly the battle she waged with herself. Saw every fear. Heard every doubt. And yet he still wanted her.
It baffled and awed her all at the same time.
“It’s just a date,” he said mildly. “Dinner. Maybe a movie. We could rent something and relax on the couch. I won’t try and get into your pants. Yet,” he added with a sly grin.
His teasing should infuriate her, but she was grateful because his levity took the burn from her eyes and lessened her need to weep.
It was just dinner. What was the harm? Even as she asked that stupid question she knew the answer. Giving in to him would be like opening the gates to an invading army. Give him an inch and he’d take the whole bloody mile.
“You’re starting to bruise my ego,” he said dryly. “Surely I’m not so terrible.”
“No,” she said quietly, not willing to let him think so. He’d done too much for her. Been too kind, understanding. He’d seen her at her worst. How could she ever think he was horrible?
“Well, that’s something,” he said, breathing out with exaggerated relief. “Now, about dinner. I promise not to take you back to the place that caters to rich old farts. Is it a date?”
She laughed, unable to prevent her reaction to him. He could be quite charming when he wasn’t all broody and intense—which was most of the time. Why was it she thought that she was the only person who saw this side of him? It was awfully egotistical of her to assume and yet the thought took hold and wouldn’t go away. She’d seen the way he was with others. Polite, but distant. Observant. Ever watchful.
“All right,” she finally conceded.
She’d vowed she was through being a coward, and to turn him down would be the height of cowardice. Especially after last night. She refused to tuck tail and run even if that’s what her instincts were screaming at her to do. But it was time to start refashioning her outlook on life and stop cowering at the least bit of conflict. She couldn’t avoid the rest of the world forever. Perhaps going out with Jensen would give her back a little of herself in the process.
Or maybe she’d end up losing every part of herself to him.
“Oh crap,” she murmured, her eyes closing.
She reopened them, hoping he could see how earnest she was. “I can’t go to dinner with you Friday night.”
He frowned. “Why not?”
She sighed. “I promised to have dinner with Chessy. Tate is entertaining an important client and with Joss gone, she’s been lonely. I can’t ditch her, Jensen. Tate’s been so busy with work and I worry about her.”
Jensen smiled at her. “You’re a very loyal friend. She’s lucky to have you. I’ll let you off the hook if you’ll give me Saturday night.”
Relief rushed through her veins. “Deal.”
“Perfect then. I’ll pick you up at six thirty. Dress casual. You want to watch movies at your place or mine?”
It was stupid that panic frayed her nerves at the idea of being in Jensen’s space. Of being alone with him in his home. He’d been alone with her in hers! Hell, he’d slept in her bed, wrapped solidly around her.
“My place,” she said quickly, hoping he didn’t pick up on that sudden surge of panic and take it personally.
But he only smiled that same damn smile that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling.
“Your place it is. If you’d prefer not to go out, I could cook you dinner at your house and then we can watch movies,” he said in a casual tone.
She frowned. “That hardly seems fair. Shouldn’t I be cooking for you?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I invited you on a date and if you’re giving me your hospitality, the least I can do is cook a meal for you. Besides, I’m an excellent cook, if I do say so myself.”
She held up her hands. “Okay, okay. You win. Give me a list of everything you need and I’ll run by the store Saturday morning.”
He shook his head. “I’ll take care of it. All I ask is for you to sit and keep me company while I work my magic in your kitchen.”
“It certainly appears I’m getting the better end of this deal,” she said dryly.
“On the contrary,” he said softly. “I get your company. I find that’s worth a hell of a lot more than one cooked meal.”
She was speechless again, an affliction she seemed to suffer on a regular basis around him. And the hell of it was he sounded absolutely sincere.
“I swear I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, Jensen Tucker,” she said in a bewildered voice.
He smiled. “If you don’t know, I’ll be happy to show you.”
IF Kylie expected hers and Jensen’s relationship to be strained in the office, she was wrong. She’d expected awkwardness. Even outright discomfort. She wasn’t a fool and even she wasn’t so ensconced in denial that she could ignore the current of attraction between her and Jensen.