Though they’d spent plenty of time together over the last years, it had always been in a neutral location. Or her own home, the one she’d shared with Carson. The last time she’d been in his house was when Carson was still alive, and the couple had been frequent visitors back then.
He curled his arm around Joss’s waist as he ushered her through the foyer and into the living room. She stiffened but made no move to distance herself from him. She was too busy looking like she was waiting for the anvil to drop from the sky on her head.
When they entered the living room, he loosened his hold and took a step away, dragging a hand raggedly through his hair. Then he turned, not sure how exactly to pose the questions burning his tongue. Fuck it. He only knew one way. Blunt.
“What the hell were you doing in The House tonight, Joss?” he demanded.
She flinched at the fury in his tone and her eyes became shadowed.
“You have no idea what you’re getting into by being there,” he continued. “No idea at all. Do you have any clue what could happen to you? What Craig would have done to you? Let me tell you. He would have had you bent over while he flogged your pretty ass and then he would have f**ked you without mercy, uncaring of your pleasure. It would have been all about his own. He would have taken you and used you and wouldn’t have given a damn about you or your pleasure. What the hell were you thinking?”
She wet her lips, her eyes going glossy with tears. Ah hell. The last thing he wanted was to make her cry when she’d made it the entire day, or at least the time she’d spent with him, without shedding a single tear.
“I do understand, Dash,” she said quietly. “I understand far more than you think.”
His brow furrowed. “Have you been going to The House before tonight?”
She shook her head. “No. This was my first night.”
“Jesus Christ, Joss. What the hell? Do you have any idea what might have happened to you if I hadn’t been there? There is no way in hell I’m allowing you to go back to that place. You don’t belong there.”
Her lips quivered and then she seemed to mentally shake herself. She steeled her features and leveled a firm stare at him.
“I know exactly what I was doing. You don’t understand, Dash. You’d never understand.”
“Try me,” he challenged.
She stared at him a long moment, her eyes uncertain, almost as if she were trying to decide whether to trust him. He was on edge, because damn it, he wanted her to be able to come to him for anything. Anything at all. And he wanted her trust.
Then she closed her eyes and sank onto the couch, sitting forward, her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders shook and it was all he could do not to go to her. Not to comfort and hold her and tell her everything would be all right. But he waited. Because whatever she had to tell him he sensed was huge. And that it would forever change the way he looked at her. At any possibility of them being together.
She lifted her head, her eyes swimming in tears. “I loved Carson with all my heart and soul. He was my soul mate. I know that. And I know I’ll never find that kind of love again.”
Dash’s breath caught and held because that wasn’t something he wanted to hear. That she’d resigned herself to a loveless existence because she didn’t think another man would ever love her as Carson had. When in fact, Dash was that man. He already loved her—had loved her forever—and given the opportunity, he’d show her that she damn well could find another man who’d give her his everything.
“Carson gave me everything I could ever possibly want or ask for. Except . . .”
She broke off and looked down again, her shoulders sagging in defeat.
“Except what, Joss?” Dash asked softly, puzzled by her statement. He knew damn well Carson would have given her the moon. Anything that was in his power to provide Joss, he would have done absolutely.
“Dominance,” Joss whispered.
Dash’s nape prickled and a curl of . . . hope? quivered through his veins. His pulse raced and he had to calm himself and clarify that he’d heard her correctly. Because there was a whole lot he didn’t understand.
She nodded. Then she looked up at him, misery clouding her beautiful eyes. “You know how he grew up. What he endured. How he and Kylie were horribly abused. In the beginning, when we first met, we talked about my . . . need. What I thought I needed and wanted. And he wouldn’t—couldn’t—bring himself to do anything that could possibly be construed as abuse. He worried constantly that somehow he would inherit his father’s abusive nature, that it was somehow genetic, and he’d die before ever doing anything to hurt me. As if he would! It was why he was reluctant to have children. He wanted them. God, he wanted them and so did I. It’s my biggest regret that I didn’t have his child, a part of him to live on now that I’ve lost him. But he was so terrified that he’d abuse his own children.”
The last part came out in a sob and Dash could no longer keep his distance. He crossed the room, sat on the couch next to her and pulled her into his arms. She buried her face in his chest as he ran his hands through her hair.
“Carson would never hurt you or his children,” Dash said with absolute confidence.
Joss pulled away, her tear-filled eyes gutting Dash. “I know that. You know that. But he didn’t. And I couldn’t convince him of that. His father messed him up, Dash. Him and Kylie both. They never recovered from all he had done to them and it affected them well into their adult life. It still affects Kylie. When I told her what I planned to do, she freaked.”
“I’d like to hear what it was you planned as well, Joss,” Dash prompted gently. “What was tonight all about?”
Joss turned away, clenching her fingers into tight fists. “I know you think I don’t have a clue what I was getting into, Dash, but I’m not stupid. I didn’t just up and decide to go to The House. It’s something I’ve thought about and researched for months. I talked with Damon Roche a lot. He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into and that I wasn’t making a hasty, emotional decision.”
Well, thank God for that. Damon was a solid guy. He may run an establishment that catered to every conceivable kink or fetish, but he took it very seriously and he vetted his members very carefully.
“But it’s like I told you today, Dash. Carson is gone. He’s not coming back. And I have to pick up and move on. I can’t mourn him the rest of my life. I need . . . I want . . .”
She faltered and Dash simply waited for her to collect her thoughts because this was huge. He was learning a side to Joss he never suspected existed. How could he have?
“I have to know if what I think I want and need is true. I have this need inside me, Dash. It’s an ache, a hole in my soul that’s even larger now that Carson is gone. I loved him too much to ever ask or demand that he give me something he wasn’t capable of. And it sounds like I was unhappy. God, I wasn’t! I loved him, Dash. I loved him with all my heart and I don’t regret a single thing about our marriage.”
“I know, honey. I know,” Dash murmured.
“But that need has always been inside me and I can’t even explain it to myself, so how can I make you understand that this isn’t a game? It isn’t me being irrational and looking to fill a void left by Carson’s death. It’s always been there. Always.”
“Try me,” Dash said simply. “Tell me what it is you want. What you need. I’ll listen, Joss. And I won’t judge you. I’ll just listen and we can talk about it.”
Relief shone in her eyes. Had she expected condemnation? Had she expected him to accuse her of being disloyal to Carson or his memory?
“I want to be . . . owned.” A shiver stole over her body, one he could feel even with the short space that separated them now. “I want what Tate and Chessy have. I want a man to possess me, to own me. I want to submit to him and I want him to take care of me. Protect me. God, it makes me sound like some helpless, dependent twit. But that’s not it. Carson taught me to stand on my own two feet. To be independent. It’s not that I have to have this in order to survive. It’s what I want. My choice.”
Dash put his finger over her lips to silence her. “Shhh, honey. You don’t have to defend your choices to me. I’m here to listen. Don’t defend. Just tell me what’s going on in that pretty head of yours.”
His heart was about to beat out of his chest. Had fate been kind to him after all? Had a gift he’d never dreamed of receiving suddenly dropped into his lap? Had Carson known—of course he’d known. He knew of Dash’s sexual preferences. That he was dominant and that he desired submissiveness in a woman. Now the promise that Carson had exacted from him made so much more sense. Carson had known his wife wanted something he himself could never provide her, and he wanted to make sure that if something happened to him that Dash would step in and give her what Carson had never been able to. God, the sheer selflessness that such a gesture entailed was mind-boggling. He’d been granting his blessing. Jesus.
“This isn’t a decision I made lightly, Dash. I was okay with it. Until I saw you tonight. I was so mortified. And I felt guilty, because seeing you there made me feel as though I were betraying Carson. I didn’t want you to know. Chessy and Kylie knew. I told them. They’re worried about me, but they also know I took all the necessary precautions before just showing up at The House tonight. And I was ready. Or at least I thought I was. But then you were there.”
Her brow suddenly furrowed as if it had just occurred to her that Dash had been there. He could see the question in her eyes before she ever voiced it.
“What were you doing there, Dash?”
For a moment he brushed aside her question because there were so many other more important things to discuss. It was all he could do to hold himself back. To temper the urge to brand her. To move in, take her and give her everything she said she wanted—needed.
“I need to know something from you first, Joss. I need to know how serious you are about this. I need to know if this is truly what you want and what you need and that it’s not just an experiment or you looking to fill a void.”
“I can’t be any more serious,” she said in a resolved tone that convinced him she was indeed that.
He leaned forward, his breath mingling with hers, their lips so close he could feel the warmth from the inviting bow. Just a fraction of an inch and he would be kissing her.
“I was there because that’s who and what I am, Joss,” he said, taking in her response, watching every flicker that crossed her eyes. “It’s always been what I am. And let me tell you this right now. If this is what you want. If this is what you need. Then I’m going to be the only damn man you offer your submission to.”
JOSS sucked in her breath and held it until she was light-headed and precariously close to toppling over. Dash’s lips were so close that she could feel the harsh exhalation of his breath. She could see the determined glitter in his eyes. And for the first time, she became aware of him as something more than a friend. Her husband’s friend. Someone she’d turned to for support many times over the years.
She couldn’t even process his heated declaration, but she knew he was utterly serious. There was a glint in his eyes, a firm set to his jaw. She could see the pulse thudding at his neck and she could smell every part of him, his scent wafting tantalizingly through her nostrils.
Dash dominant? Not that she had any difficulty in believing that of him. He was a man well accustomed to getting his way. He had a quiet authority about him. He didn’t need to be loud to get his point across. She’d been present too many times when he’d spoken and everyone had immediately quieted, listening to what he had to say.
He wasn’t someone who shouted orders. He didn’t need to. There was an intensity to him that made people aware of the power emanating from him. She hadn’t been blind to it, nor was she immune. As she’d pondered just earlier that day, in the beginning he’d intimidated her. She’d felt his concern and disapproval over how fast her relationship had progressed with Carson. But once he’d become convinced that she was the right woman for his best friend, his loyalty to her was sealed.
But his words still rang in her ears. That brusque vow. She shivered under the intensity of his gaze, those dark eyes eating her up, exposing her, making her feel vulnerable.
“I d-don’t understand,” she said helplessly, her hand lifting and then fluttering downward again as she tried to make sense of the entire evening.
And then his next words tilted her universe even further off its axis.
“I’ve waited a long damn time for you, Joss. I thought I’d never have you, and I was okay with that because you made Carson happy and I know Carson made you happy. But as you said, he’s gone now, and I’ve waited. For what seems like an eternity I’ve waited for the right moment. For when you were ready. Maybe I waited too long, or perhaps now is the perfect time. But if you think I’m going to stand by and allow another man to touch what I consider mine, you’re very mistaken.”
She shook her head, overwhelmed by it all. Dash spoke as if he wanted her. Had wanted her for a long time. But no. That wasn’t possible. He’d never betray his best friend. Had Dash developed feelings for her after Carson’s death? Was he simply stepping in for his best friend, wanting to take care of Carson’s widow?
She didn’t want to be an obligation to Dash. She’d been one for far too long. Today had been about letting go. Not only of Carson but of her dependence on Dash.