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She took a deep breath and forged ahead.

“I’ve found a place that specializes in . . . dominance. I need to know if it’s what I’m missing. If it’s always been what I’m missing. Maybe I’ll find the answer. Maybe I won’t. But I have to try. I have to know. And I couldn’t go without telling you. Without explaining that I never lacked for anything when we were married. I never doubted even for a moment that you loved me, and you would have given me the moon if I asked. But this . . . This I couldn’t ask you for. And right now I need something to fill the void. There’s a hole in my soul, Carson. One that I may never fill again. But right now I’d take even a bandage. Temporary solace, if you will. I just wanted you to know. I’ll be okay. I’m not going into a dangerous situation. I’ve made certain that I’ll be safe. And as painful as it is for me to say this, I’m finally letting you go. I’ve held on to you for too long now. I can’t do it anymore. Life is happening around me. Life goes on. That sounds so trite, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Chessy and Tate worry for me. Kylie worries. And Dash. God, I’m surprised he hasn’t washed his hands of me yet. I’ve been such a burden to him—to them all—these last three years and I don’t want to be that woman any longer.

“You gave me the confidence and independence to fly. I want that back again, Carson. You taught me so much. You gave me the world. The problem is when you left, you took my world with you. And I want it back again. I want to live and not be this hollow shell of myself that I’ve been since you died.”

She sucked in a steadying breath, knowing what she said next was dumb. But she had to get it off her chest. Say it and then let go of the nagging emotion.

“I also want to tell you that I forgive you. I know that sounds so stupid. You don’t need my forgiveness. But I was so angry with you for so long for leaving me. I was so selfish. I’ve spent three years being angry and resentful, and starting today, I’m not going to be that person anymore.”

She let her hand drift down to glide across the sun-warmed marble of the headstone.

“I love you. I miss you. I’ll always love you. But good-bye, Carson. Wherever you are, I hope you’re at peace and I hope you know how very much I loved you. Thank you for loving me.”

She closed her eyes as tears gathered and she didn’t reopen them until she was certain she could return to the car where Dash waited without looking like she’d fallen apart.

With one last glance at the grave and the flowers that had already lost a few petals to the wind, she turned, squared her shoulders and walked away. The wind picked up and the sun broke further through the clouds, shining down on her face. She turned her face upward, soaking in the warmth as peace enveloped her in its gentle embrace. It was as if Carson were sending her a message, or perhaps she only imagined him blessing her decision.

Dash held the door open for her, his gaze fixed on her face as if he were trying to ascertain her mood. She was careful to keep herself from showing any outward emotion. Because what she would say next she was certain he would object to, and if he thought she was upset, he’d never leave her alone the rest of the day.

She waited until he was behind the wheel and they were driving away before she turned to him.

“I have lunch plans today, so you don’t have to stay with me. And I have plans for tonight as well,” she murmured, letting him make of that what he would.

Dash’s brow furrowed, and he made no effort to hide his concern. He reached for her hand as they stopped at a light.

“What’s going on with you, honey?”

His tone was worried and his eyes were boring intently into hers.

She gave him a half smile. “I’m having lunch with Kylie and Chessy. It’s time I stop with the grieving widow act every year on the same day. It’s been three years, Dash. He’s gone and he’s not coming back.”

She halted a moment, the pain of her statement momentarily stealing her breath. But it had to be said. To be acknowledged. And perhaps saying it aloud made it that much more real.

She could swear she saw relief flash in his deep brown eyes, but it was gone so quickly she was sure she imagined it.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come over after you have lunch with the girls?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s not necessary, Dash. You’ve babysat me for long enough. It’s time for me to stand on my own two feet. I’m sure it has to come as a relief to you that you don’t have to hover over me for fear I’ll lose it. I’m just sorry I’ve been such a burden to you for so long.”

This time a glint of anger flashed in those dark eyes. “You’re not a burden, damn it. Carson was my best friend, Joss. He—and you—mean a hell of a lot to me.”

She squeezed his hand as he accelerated after a car behind them honked angrily when Dash didn’t immediately go when the light turned green.

“And I appreciate that. I appreciate all you’ve done for me. But it’s time, Dash. I have to do this. He’s gone. I have to accept that.”

Dash didn’t respond. He directed his gaze forward, tension thick in the interior of the car. Had she angered him? She’d only been honest, and she’d sincerely thought he would be glad that he no longer had to treat her like a fragile piece of glass. That he could resume his own life without making her a priority in his.

When they arrived back at her house, she got out, as did Dash. He walked her to the door and she went in, turning back to tell him thank you and good-bye.

“This isn’t good-bye,” he said tightly. “Just because you think you no longer need me doesn’t mean I’m going to just disappear. Prepare yourself for that, Joss.”

With that, he spun on his heel and strode back down the sidewalk, leaving her staring open-mouthed as he drove away.

TWO

JOSS zipped into the parking lot of the Lux Café on Westheimer and parked her BMW roadster next to Kylie’s silver Mercedes coupe. The car had been a gift to Kylie from Carson on her twenty-first birthday, just one year before he’d been in the fatal car accident that had taken him from both his wife and his sister.

Carson and Joss had gone to Las Vegas frequently. Carson loved to gamble and he’d taught Joss how to play all manner of casino games. He’d even sharpened her poker skills enough that she’d become a formidable opponent at the tables. Carson had always chuckled when her winnings topped his own, though she refused to play at the same table as him because his competitive streak was such that he didn’t like to lose. Even to his wife.

Their favorite place to stay was the Venetian, where Joss had discovered the Lux Café and all the wonderful food on the menu. She’d been delighted when one had opened in Houston, and it had quickly become a favorite place for them and their friends to eat.

She hurried to the entrance, checking her watch with a grimace. Carson had always teased her about her lack of punctuality, and she was fifteen minutes late for her lunch date with Kylie and Chessy.

The two women were waiting inside when Joss rushed in. Joss’s gaze immediately settled on her sister-in-law. The anniversary of Carson’s death was as hard for her as it was for Joss because Carson was her only family. Joss had made the effort to make sure she and Kylie remained close after his passing. They’d clung to one another, both grief stricken over their loss.

Shadows were evident in Kylie’s eyes, but they brightened when she saw Joss and immediately went to hug her.

“How are you?” Kylie whispered.

Joss squeezed her and pulled away with a smile. “I’m okay.” And she meant it.

Then she turned to Chessy and pulled her into a hug.

“You doing okay today?” Chessy asked quietly.

“Let’s sit and then we’ll talk. I’m starving,” Joss said with a grin.

The other two women looked delighted over Joss’s mood. It shamed Joss that she’d been a burden not only to Dash over the last three years but to her closest friends as well. But no more. Today . . . Well, today was the first day in reestablishing her life. Of getting back on track and filling the void left by the death of her husband.

They were seated in a spacious booth—Joss hated the long rows of tables that were practically on top of one another. Even if her conversation was casual, she hated to be overheard by others. And today of all days, she wanted to be afforded complete privacy.

“You look . . . different,” Chessy mused, as they opened their menus.

Joss left hers closed because she knew what she wanted. The others made fun of her because with all the wonderful selections on the huge menu, she usually got the same exact thing and today was no different. Shaking Beef. Her absolute favorite thing the Lux Café served.

“I am different,” Joss said in a low tone.

Kylie’s eyes widened. “What’s happened?”

“It’s not what has happened. It’s what’s going to happen,” Joss said firmly.

“Uh-oh. Do we even want to hear this?” Chessy asked.

Silence fell over the table when the waiter appeared to take their orders. Only after he’d departed did Kylie prompt Joss to explain what she’d meant.

Joss sighed and then glanced up at Chessy. “I wanted to ask you . . . I mean I know this is a personal question, but you’ve talked about it before and if it’s too personal, feel free to tell me to mind my own business, but I’d really like to ask you some questions about you and Tate.”

A dark shadow crossed over Chessy’s face and sadness entered her eyes for a brief moment before she shook it away. But the look hadn’t gone unnoticed by either Joss or Kylie, who exchanged quick puzzled looks.

“You know you can ask me anything,” Chessy said lightly, though the lightness of her tone seemed forced to Joss.

Deciding to try to figure out later what was behind that, Joss plunged ahead.

“You’ve said that you and Tate have a dominant, submissive relationship. That he calls the shots in and out of bed. I just wanted to know . . . I mean this sounds stupid because of course you’re happy. Anyone who sees the two of you can see how in love you are, but I wanted to know more about how it works.”

Kylie paled and Joss hated bringing up the subject in front of her, but she didn’t want to hide something this important from her sister-in-law. Not just a sister-in-law but her best friend. Kylie and Chessy were her two best friends in the world. She couldn’t not share this with them because it was huge. A monumental leap forward from the life she’d led the last three years.

“Joss? Why are you asking?” Chessy asked in a puzzled voice. One laced with concern.

Joss took another deep breath and closed her eyes. She reached for Kylie’s hand because she knew this would be hard for her sister-in-law.

“You both know I loved Carson with all my heart. He gave me everything. But I’ve always had this . . . need. Craving. Desire. I don’t know what to call it. But I’ve always craved . . . dominance. And everything that goes with it. And it’s the one thing I knew Carson couldn’t, wouldn’t give me. I loved him too much to ever demand it of him. We spoke of it once. Early in our relationship. Before I knew about his childhood. He was always so afraid he’d turn out like his father. The idea of doing anything that might hurt me or that may be construed as abuse appalled him. And I think in the beginning he feared losing me because he couldn’t provide me with that kind of relationship.”

Kylie’s gaze had dropped, but Joss could see the tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. Joss tightened her hold on Kylie’s hand, lending her strength that she hadn’t had until now.

“And you want it now?” Chessy asked, her brow furrowed.

Slowly Joss nodded.

Kylie’s head came up, a protest already forming on her lips, but Joss silenced her with another squeeze to her hand.

“I don’t want a relationship. I mean not a permanent one. I found perfection once. I know I’ll never find that kind of love again. But I need something to fill the void. A void that’s always existed, but while I was with Carson it wasn’t so aching. I wasn’t lonely. He provided me what I needed, even if a tiny part of me always wanted and needed more. I know that sounds terrible. I loved Carson with all my heart and soul, and I would have never done anything to hurt him. But he’s gone. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that no matter how hard I wish it, he’s not coming back.”

Emotion knotted her throat and she blinked as hot moisture clouded her eyes. She wiped hastily at her cheeks, not wanting to make a scene in public. Kylie’s head lowered again, a tear sliding down her pale cheek.

“I’m lonely,” Joss whispered. “And I need something, someone to fill that void that Carson left behind. It’s time for me to let go and try to move on. I’ve found a place . . .”

“What kind of place?” Chessy asked bluntly.

“It’s called The House.”

Chessy’s expression eased. “Yes, I know it. Tate and I have a membership there. Tate is friends with the owner, Damon Roche. Damon is married and has a child now, so he isn’t quite as active as he was before, but he still runs it.”

“He’s who I talked to,” Joss admitted. “He vetted my membership. He was very kind to me. He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into.”

“And do you?” Kylie blurted, lifting her head again. “Joss, this is serious. What if you get hurt? What if you hook up with the wrong man? You know what kind of monsters exist out there. God knows, my father was one of them. How can you even think about going blindly into a situation like this?”

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