“What the hell is going on here?” Chessy demanded. “Kylie bolted like a bat out of hell the minute the doorbell rang.”
“Long story,” Joss muttered. “Dash is bringing in Jensen Tucker as a partner, and Kylie didn’t take the news well at all. That’s him at the door. He’s coming over to meet everyone. We invited Kylie earlier so Dash could tell her in private, and she freaked. Like really freaked. She said some pretty harsh things. To me.”
Chessy’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Joss nodded. “Dash was pissed. Extremely pissed. He basically threatened to fire her if she didn’t apologize and he told her if she ever came at me like that again he’d fire her on the spot.”
“Wow,” Chessy breathed. “Not that I don’t agree with him protecting you, but wow.”
“Yeah. My thoughts exactly.”
Chessy grabbed the tray as Kylie reentered the kitchen, as though she’d come over to help.
“Grab the wine, Kylie,” Chessy said cheerfully. “We’ll go serve up Joss’s yum-yums to the menfolk.”
Her pretend obliviousness to the entire situation almost fooled even Joss. Kylie looked like a deer in the headlights, but there was no way for her to object without making a scene. She sighed but took the wine bottle from the table and followed Chessy into the living room.
Joss was only a few feet behind and she immediately went to greet Jensen, wanting to make him as comfortable as possible since it was obvious Kylie wasn’t going to be as welcoming.
Jensen kissed her on both cheeks and smiled warmly at her.
“Has Dash introduced you to everyone?” Joss asked.
“Everyone but Kylie and Chessy.”
She took his hand, pulling him toward where the other two women stood. Jensen looked befuddled while Dash smiled at Joss taking charge.
“Ladies, I want you to meet Jensen Tucker, Dash’s new partner. Jensen, these are my two best friends, Chessy and Kylie.”
“I’m her sister-in-law,” Kylie said pointedly.
“I’m very pleased to meet you both, but especially you, Kylie. I’ve heard much about you. Dash says you’re indispensable at the office. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Kylie flushed at the praise and ducked her head, not meeting Jensen’s gaze directly.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” she said stiffly.
Chessy extended her hand to shake Jensen’s and he pulled it up as he’d done with Joss the night before and brushed a kiss over the back. Then he pointedly extended his hand to Kylie and when she reluctantly took it, he pulled hers up as well, but he was much slower to lower it once he’d kissed hers.
Kylie snatched her hand away as though she’d been burned and tucked it protectively behind her back. If Jensen noticed her reaction he didn’t show it. His smile was bland and he didn’t so much as blink.
“How long have you known Dash?” Chessy asked curiously.
Trust Chessy never to miss a beat. She was an absolute charmer, and it looked as though Jensen was enchanted with her. Who wouldn’t be? Was it any wonder Tate was so forbiddingly possessive of her? But Dash had said he shared Chessy with other men. Joss still couldn’t wrap her brain around it. Even now Tate was watching intently, taking in Jensen’s reaction to his wife. Though he was across the room, his gaze never left Chessy, and he’d frowned when Jensen had kissed her hand. He was broodingly watching the interaction between Jensen and all the women. Though Dash was conversing with Tate, Tate’s focus wasn’t on Dash. It was squarely on Chessy.
Chessy was a born flirt. Vivacious. Beautiful. She never met a stranger, and her laughter was infectious. Joss had always been envious of Chessy’s confidence and her outgoing personality. Joss was quieter and more reserved than Chessy. But Carson had never minded. He’d adored Joss’s shyness. Had been delighted that he was her first lover. He’d told her how much it meant to him that she’d waited. For him.
Joss shook her thoughts from Carson. She hadn’t thought of him all day. Not until Kylie had thrown her dead husband in her face. And now he dominated her thoughts and it was the last thing she wanted. Not when she was in Dash’s home acting as his hostess. Something she’d done for Carson any number of times.
But these people were her friends. Yes, she’d only just met Jensen, but she’d warmed instantly to him. He was quiet and brooding. He’d intimidated her at first glance, but he’d quickly made her feel at ease, and he’d been understanding of Kylie’s feelings. Even now he didn’t seem to take her reaction to him personally. He stood there conversing politely, seemingly oblivious to Kylie’s obvious discomfort.
“Excuse me,” Joss said.
She walked over to where Dash stood with Tate, and Tate smiled warmly at her, pulling her into a quick hug and pressing an affectionate kiss to her cheek.
“Hey, darlin’. Long time no see.”
She smiled back at him. “You need to stop being such a stranger, Tate. Work keeping you busy these days? I swear it’s been forever since I’ve seen you.”
His eyes twinkled. “I’d hardly think you’d notice my absence. It appears Dash has been keeping you pretty occupied lately.”
She blushed to the roots of her hair as both men laughed. Tate reached for her hand and squeezed it warmly.
“I’m happy for you, sweetheart. You deserve happiness, and Dash is just the man to make it happen for you. I wish you both the best.”
Her face still flaming, she glanced shyly at Dash before returning her attention to Tate. What had Dash told Tate about her? Or maybe Chessy had been the one to share the details of her relationship with Dash.
“Thank you,” she said sincerely. “Dash makes me happy.”
Dash’s face softened at her words and Tate smiled gently.
“You deserve to be happy, darlin’. And you won’t find a better man than Dash.”
“I know,” she said quietly.
Then remembering why she’d come over, she glanced back up at Dash. “The steaks are ready to go on the grill. Everything else is ready. Potatoes are in the oven, and they’ll be ready by the time you take the steaks up. You guys can head back to the grill. I’ll make drinks or there’s beer and wine. Whatever y’all want.”
Dash leaned down to kiss her forehead and then cupped her face in a gentle caress. “Thanks, honey. I’ll round up Tate and Jensen, and we’ll go do our manly duty. Everything going okay with Kylie?”
His gaze searched hers intently, looking for any signs of upset.
Joss nodded. “She’s not very comfortable around Jensen, but we expected that. He can be very . . . intimidating. Just the type of man who’d put Kylie on edge.”
Tate grimaced. “This is going to be hard for her. I hate it but she has to put her past behind her at some point. She can’t continue to let it rule her present and future. I’m glad you stuck to your guns, Dash. She needs that.”
Dash nodded his agreement as his expression darkened. He glanced in Kylie’s direction, his frown deepening. “She was out of line for lashing out at Joss the way she did. That I won’t allow. She can say whatever she wants to me, but I’ll be damned if she pulls that shit with Joss.”
Joss’s heart warmed all over again. She pressed into Dash’s side and tipped her head up to kiss him on the mouth. He seemed surprised and then delighted at her spontaneous show of affection.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “It means a lot that you’d stick up for me the way you did.”
He put a finger underneath her chin, tipping it upward to meet his steady gaze. “Always, honey. I’ll never allow anyone to hurt you. Count on that.”
She smiled and then shooed him toward the kitchen.
“If y’all don’t get the meat on, we’ll never eat. We’re hungry!”
Laughing, Dash headed in Jensen’s direction, Tate following behind. After a moment the three men disappeared into the kitchen, and Joss heard the door to the patio open and then shut as they went out to tend the grill.
Noticing Kylie’s and Chessy’s wineglasses were nearly empty, she went to fetch a bottle and refilled theirs as well as hers.
She motioned for them to sit and get comfortable, knowing they had half an hour before the steaks were ready.
It was just like old times, only Carson wasn’t there. He was the only missing component, and now there was Jensen, filling that void. It would never be the same, and for the first time Joss felt optimistic about that fact. No, nothing would ever be the same, but it was certainly possible that it would be better.
AS if knowing how trying the evening had been for Joss and how emotionally fragile she was, Dash made love to her so tenderly that she was overcome. Afterward, he pulled her to him, binding their wrists as he’d done previously and then cradled her in his arms, her head pillowed on his shoulder.
She loved the intimacy of the act. Of being bound to him. It was more than just a physical binding. She felt connected to him on a much deeper level. One she welcomed and savored with her entire heart.
She fell into a deep sleep, contented and sated, and yet when her dreams came, they were disturbing. Carson was there, smiling at her, holding out his hand. Dash was on the other side, standing with his heart in his eyes. The voice inside her head told her to choose. That if she had the choice of having Carson back or remaining with Dash, which would she pick?
She frowned even in sleep, her forehead creasing in pain. How could she make such a choice? She’d always said she’d do anything to have Carson back. Anything at all. But now it wasn’t so simple. Now she had Dash.
She was caught in the middle of two men she cared about, each pulling her in a different direction. The dream didn’t make sense. She couldn’t have Carson back, so why was she being tormented with the choice?
And yet each man was demanding she decide. Carson’s smile faltered and sadness entered his eyes. His hand dropped, his shoulders sagging in defeat. But Dash didn’t look triumphant. He looked tortured, as though he’d do anything in the world to spare Joss the pain she faced.
Dash turned away from her, making her decision for her, but that wasn’t what she wanted. Still, she didn’t reach for Carson. She remained standing, frozen with the impossibility of the task before her.
How could she choose? Her past or her present? Her future? Carson was dead. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—betray Dash’s faith in her. Even in her dreams, she wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen.
Her heart in pieces, she watched helplessly as Carson turned, slowly fading away, becoming transparent, the look on his face slashing her open, leaving her bleeding on the inside.
“I’m sorry, Carson. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Tears slipped down her cheeks, warm against the coolness of her skin.
Dash watched her in the darkness, helplessness gripping him. She was fighting her demons even in sleep and he was powerless to do anything about it. Worse, she was crying for her dead husband, apologizing to him. For what? For cheating on him? For betraying his memory as Kylie had accused her of? Did Dash ever have a hope of winning her heart or would a dead man forever own it?
He silently untied the sash binding their wrists together and this time it was he who turned away, putting his back to Joss. And again, sleep eluded him. He lay there, fighting his own demons while Joss battled hers, just inches away and a world apart all at the same time.
JOSS awakened the next morning feeling emotionally wrung out from her troubled, upsetting dreams. She automatically reached for Dash, needing the comfort he offered, a shelter from the emotional turmoil of her dreams.
To her surprise not only was her wrist no longer bound to his, but he wasn’t in bed. She struggled to sit up, brushing back her hair so she could see. Across the room Dash stood in front of the dresser buttoning the sleeves to his dress shirt. His expression was solemn, as if he were deep in thought.
His name came out shaky and soft, but he heard her and turned immediately, his expression indecipherable.
“I have to be in early this morning,” he said in a neutral tone. “There’s a lot to do before Jensen’s partnership is announced. I’m not sure how late I’ll be but I’ll call to let you know when I’m on my way home.”
Her brow furrowed. His mood was the same as it had been the previous morning when she hadn’t been able to discern what was bothering him. And it was evident that something was. She may be an open book when it came to her emotions, but Dash was similar in that she only had to look into his eyes to know if something was off. And for the second morning, he wasn’t his usual, loving self.
He didn’t even come to the bed to kiss her, and she felt too self-conscious to get out of bed to go to him. She was too afraid he’d reject her and so she remained where she was, studying him from underneath her lashes.
“Be careful,” she said quietly. “I’ll look forward to you coming home. Shall I cook dinner for us tonight?”
“Whatever you like,” he said indifferently. “We can eat out if you prefer.”
“I’ll cook,” she said firmly, wanting to do something to please him.
He nodded and then turned back, collecting his watch and wallet and car keys.
She waited for him to kiss her. For him to offer a sweet word. For him to tell her he’d miss her. Anything. Something. But he simply collected his belongings and strode toward the door, leaving her in bed, her lips parted in surprise.
She flopped back onto the pillow, staring up at the ceiling. What the hell was going on? What was with his Jekyll and Hyde act? It was exhausting trying to keep up with his mood swings. She’d been nothing but honest and open with him at every turn, and yet he was holding back from her.