The Surrender trilogy continues as one woman, haunted by the shadows of the past, explores the possibilities of a new beginning in ways she never could have imagined…
Kylie sees the way Jensen looks at her. The dark promise in his eyes. That rough edge of dominance she knows he possesses. But dominance is the one thing that frightens her above all else. She and her brother barely survived a childhood steeped in violence and abuse. She could never give up total control and submit to a man. Especially a man like Jensen. Could she?
Jensen sees the shadows in Kylie’s eyes. Knows he has to tread very carefully or risk losing any chance he has with her. All he wants is the opportunity to show her that dominance doesn’t equal pain, bondage or discipline. That emotional surrender is the most powerful of all, and that to submit—fully to him—will fulfill the aching void in her heart in a way nothing else ever will.
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 even portraits of old rich farts dotted their walls. She glanced down self-consciously, 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 flair giving her room to at least walk unlike some of those skintight hip hugger 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 closet full. 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 not trying 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, almost a cruel beauty to his face, to 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 further 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 for 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 that day 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 him. But then 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 him—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 admitted 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 too. 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 was 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, business-like 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 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.”
The 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 broadcasted her weaknesses to a complete stranger. No, maybe he wasn’t a complete stranger, but he certainly wasn’t someone she’d ever see herself confiding in. And she couldn’t even blame it on alcohol since they weren’t drinking wine yet.
“You’re too hard on yourself, Kylie,” he said gently.
She shook her head, waving her hand in a dismissing 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 seeking looks, ones 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.”
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 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 monster, Kylie. Those people have families to support. Children to feed and put through college. They need the job, however unnecessary it 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 at left her off center 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 a heartless monster, 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 them 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 the business at hand, she casually pulled her hand away, reaching for her glass of water as if she only wanted a drink and wasn’t escaping his grasp. The quick flash of amusement 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 environment was one she was more comfortable in. 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 entrees. 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. It 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 you know of hang portraits of older men who look like judges or some politician or banker or some other guy who founded some corporation and has loads of money on their walls?”
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 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, but perhaps 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 may 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 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 for anyone 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 to her tone so it wouldn’t seem as though she was in a hurry, dismissing him. But again, that gleam in his eyes that 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 those 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 mange the simple act of breathing, much less acting on her desire to be 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, at a table several rows across 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, putting more emphasis.
The words were hard to form around her starving lungs, the knot in her throat making the words 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.
“No one,” she croaked. “He just looked like…” She trailed off helplessly and to her further horror, tears slipped down her cheeks. “He reminded me of someone. Please, can we just leave?”
“The hell I’m letting you drive home in your condition.”
He got up, pulling her to her feet, instantly propelling her toward the entrance, not stopping until they were outside, fresh air blowing over her like the most soothing balm.
Some of the tightness eased. Her horrific fear began to subside, leaving stark embarrassment in its wake.
“Breathe,” Jensen ordered even as he barked an order to the valet to get his car.
She sucked in breath after breath, gulping at it greedily until finally the tightness eased and the spots receded. The world had stopped its sickening swaying but as she tried to step away from Jensen and his hold on her, her knees buckled, and with a muttered curse, he hauled her right back up against his side, his arm anchoring her there so she couldn’t move.
His warmth bled into her icy cold skin. Permeated the artic layer surrounding her.
“My c-car,” she stammered. “I can’t leave my car here.”
“Fuck your car,” he said rudely. “You aren’t driving anywhere tonight. I’m taking you home. We’ll get your car tomorrow after the meeting.”
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