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He hugged her to him and she hugged back, savoring the closeness, the intimacy that was still new and shiny.

“You won’t lose me, Joss. Believe that.”

“Okay,” she whispered.

Even as she agreed, she whispered a prayer that things would work out and that nothing ever happened to Dash. She couldn’t survive it again. Once had nearly destroyed her. If something ever happened to Dash, she wouldn’t survive this time.

SIXTEEN

JOSS reclined onto the sofa, taking the glass of wine Dash offered her. She sipped, her stomach churning with nervousness. It was silly to be so anxious to meet Jensen, her husband’s replacement, but she was. She’d likely never come into contact with him after this meeting since she had nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of Dash’s business. Kylie would be more affected by Jensen coming on board since she would have to work for him.

She knew Kylie wouldn’t take it well. She hoped that by meeting Jensen and offering him her acceptance, it would smooth over whatever objections Kylie had when told of the new partner.

“You’re on edge, honey. Why?”

Dash settled down on the couch next to her, reaching for her with his free arm. She went readily, balancing her wineglass in her other hand as she snuggled into Dash’s embrace.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly.

He squeezed her to him and kissed the top of her head. “You’ll like him. He’s very good at what he does. You must know that I’d never do anything to jeopardize yours or Kylie’s futures by choosing the wrong person to bring into the business.”

“She’s not going to take it well, is she?” Joss asked, turning anxiously to face Dash.

“At first I don’t imagine she will, but she doesn’t have a choice. She works for me, not the other way around. She won’t have a choice but to accept him. I won’t allow her to cause problems. If it comes down to it, she’ll have to be let go. It’s not what I want and I’d certainly ensure that she’s well provided for. I promised Carson that I would always look after the both of you. It’s a promise I intend to keep.”

She cocked her head to the side, gazing curiously at him. “He asked you to do that? I mean specifically?”

Dash grimaced. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“But you did,” she persisted. “Is this something you two discussed?”

Dash sighed. “Yes. We spoke about it a short time before his accident. I’ve often wondered since then if he didn’t know. If he had a feeling that something was going to happen. It’s not something we ever discussed and then out of the blue he brought it up. And he was serious about it. It wasn’t an off-the-cuff ‘just in case’ conversation. He was absolutely serious and he wanted my promise that if anything ever happened to him that I’d ensure you and Kylie were taken care of.”

Joss weighed his words for a moment, discomfited by the idea that she was merely a method of Dash fulfilling a promise to his best friend. But no, he’d said that he had feelings for her long before then. When she and Carson were first married. A dozen questions bubbled to the surface but she wasn’t certain they should be asked.

“I don’t like that look, Joss. What are you thinking?”

This time she sighed, casting her gaze downward to his waist. He slid his fingers underneath her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze once more.

“Is that what I am to you? An obligation?”

His frown was immediate. In fact he looked pissed. She regretted voicing her brief fear because it was obvious he had no liking for it.

“Don’t answer that. It was a silly question,” she murmured. “But there’s another question I wanted to ask you. It’s something I’ve wondered ever since we began this. Since you told me you had feelings for me when I was married to Carson.”

“You can ask me anything,” Dash said. “But be prepared for an honest answer, honey. If the truth hurts you then be careful what you ask. Because I won’t lie to you. Ever.”

She nodded. He’d always been honest. She knew that much.

“When Carson and I first began dating, I felt as though you didn’t approve of me. That you didn’t approve of our relationship or the fact that things moved so quickly. At the time I chalked it up to you being concerned about your friend. But lately I’ve wondered . . .”

“What have you been wondering?” Dash asked gently.

She lifted her eyes to his, studying his features.

“You said that you were attracted to me. But you didn’t say when those feelings started. Were you attracted to me from the very start? Is that why you didn’t seem happy about me and Carson being together? Were you . . . jealous?”

Dash was silent for a long moment and then he heaved out his breath, his shoulders drooping slightly. He turned away from her, directing his gaze toward the fireplace. His hold loosened on her and she shifted away, just so she could better see him.

“That was part of it,” he admitted. “I was jealous as hell. The first time I met you. Do you remember? Carson brought you to the company Christmas party and there you were. So beautiful it made my teeth ache. You were adorably shy, reserved. And you clung to Carson’s side the entire night. I couldn’t look at you without resenting the fact that he’d found you first.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “I had no idea.”

“No. It shames me that I treated you so curtly in the beginning. I actually hoped that things wouldn’t work out between you and Carson because I wanted you for myself. I had planned to swoop in and claim you the minute things ended between you and Carson. But it became very clear that he had no intention of letting you go. I damned my luck. Here was the woman of my dreams and she was with my best friend. I saw how happy you made him. I fully admit, I looked for faults. I looked for any evidence that you weren’t what was best for him. Hell, I hoped that he’d lose interest or you’d do something to put him off. That makes me a total bastard, but that’s the truth.”

He turned back to her, his eyes dark with regret.

“I wanted you to fail just so I could have you as my own. But I saw how devoted you were to him. I saw how other men made veiled invitations, flirted with you, propositioned you, and you never even looked their way. You were one hundred percent loyal and devoted to Carson. How could I not want that for my best friend? It was hell, Joss. Hell watching him be so damn happy and resenting him with every breath. And worse was the fact that after he found out, he wasn’t even pissed. He laughed and said he couldn’t blame me for wanting you when he was consumed with that same want. He told me that it was a damn good thing he’d met you first because I would have locked you in my bedroom and never let you out. He wasn’t wrong.”

She shook her head in bewilderment, unable to process everything he’d said.

“I thought all this time you didn’t like me. Not at first. Later, I knew you’d come to accept me, but I always felt like you didn’t approve in the beginning. You intimidated me.”

He pressed his forehead to hers, stroking her hair with one hand. “I’m sorry for that, honey. You’ll never know how much. But I was in an impossible situation, and having to see you with Carson, seeing the both of you so blindingly happy, was like a fist to my gut every single time. But you have to know, I need you to know, that I never wished him ill. Losing him hurt me, and if I could have him back, I’d let you go in a heartbeat, even if it meant killing myself in the process.”

Tears filled Joss’s eyes. She blinked furiously, determined not to let them fall.

“Thank you for that,” she whispered. “It means a lot to me that you cared so much about him. He loved you, you know. He never had a family. Just Kylie. You and your family meant so much to him.”

“I’ll regret his death for the rest of my life, but honey, you need to know that at the same time I do not regret having this opportunity with you. I’d give anything to have him back, but I can’t bring myself to regret having you in my bed and in my life.”

She smiled, a wobbly smile, her lips quivering with the effort. He kissed each corner of her mouth to steady her lips.

“I don’t regret it either,” she said in a low voice. “I want to see where this takes us, Dash. I’m willing to take the risk.”

The doorbell rang, interrupting the intimacy that surrounded them like a fog. He kissed her once more and then smoothed her hair that was slightly mussed. She hastily ran her fingers through her hair as he rose. He touched her cheek.

“You look beautiful, honey. There’s not a thing wrong with you. Sit tight and I’ll let Jensen in.”

She scooted to the edge of the couch as Dash disappeared to answer the door. She sucked in steadying breaths, cursing her sudden bout of nerves. He was just a man. His opinion of her didn’t matter. But she wanted this meeting because she was curious about the man who’d fill the vacancy left by Carson.

A moment later, Dash returned, Jensen Tucker close behind. She sucked in her breath at her first look at the man Dash was taking on as a partner. If she’d thought Dash was intimidating in the beginning, Jensen Tucker scared the hell out of her.

He looked intense, brooding, utterly focused and scary as hell. His skin was tanned, matching his hair and eyes, brown, as though he spent a lot of time in the sun. He had a rugged appearance that screamed military or cop. She wondered what his past was and if she was right in her assessment that he was a warrior.

Kylie would likely dive under her desk the moment she laid eyes on Jensen. Joss felt sorry for her because Kylie feared strong, dominant men, and Jensen Tucker definitely qualified on all counts.

When Dash stopped in front of her, he extended his hand to help her up. She rose gracefully, though her heart was pounding as she stared up at Jensen. Then he smiled at her, a gentle smile that transformed his entire face from brooding to a much softer-looking man. It was as if he knew he intimidated her and was taking pains not to do so.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and extended her hand to his.

“I’m Joss Breckenridge,” she said quietly. “Dash has told me a lot about you. I’m very happy to meet you.”

Jensen’s hand closed over hers, firm, strong, just as he appeared. But he surprised her by lifting her hand to his mouth to press a kiss to the back of it.

He squeezed once before letting her go and Dash reclaimed her hand, pulling her into his side as if to openly declare his possession. Joss found she didn’t mind at all. Her heart fluttered over the fact that Dash was publicly putting his stamp on her.

“I’m happy to meet you as well, Joss. Pictures don’t do you justice. You’re far more beautiful in person.”

She blinked in surprise, wondering where he would have seen pictures of her. She tucked that away to ask Dash later. It relieved her that Jensen made no mention of Carson. No condolences, no dancing around the issue of him replacing her dead husband. He didn’t bring it up at all, as Joss had feared he would, and that it would make the entire evening awkward.

Delighted that everything seemed to be off on the right footing, she directed her attention to both men, remembering her duties as hostess. Though it had been several years since she’d entertained, when she and Carson were married, they’d entertained often.

She was naturally shy and it had been hard to overcome her self-consciousness and get used to being open and friendly with strangers. But over time and with Carson’s encouragement, she’d managed to become adept at handling social situations.

“What would you two like to drink?” she asked. “And please, sit down and make yourselves comfortable. There are appetizers in the kitchen. I’ll bring them out as soon as I’ve gotten you your drinks.”

“You don’t have to serve us, honey,” Dash murmured, but there was approval in his eyes. “Why don’t you get the tray of food and I’ll fix mine and Jensen’s drinks. Would you like a refill of your wine?”

She smiled. “Yes, thank you. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Dash watched as she walked away, the heels she wore accentuating her shapely legs. They didn’t go unnoticed by Jensen either. The other man glanced up at Dash, a gleam in his eyes.

“I can see why you moved in so quickly,” Jensen murmured. “She’s a woman a man would do anything to possess.”

“Yes,” Dash said shortly. “And she’s definitely claimed. Remember that.”

Jensen chuckled. “No need to get uptight. I prefer very specific qualities in the women I’m with. Not many women are up for what I demand. I doubt Joss would take me very well.”

Intrigued, Dash lifted an eyebrow as he studied the other man. They were venturing into personal territory, an area they’d never delved into. Their dealings had been purely business, but he assumed if they were going to be partners that at some point they’d learn more about one another.

“Care to explain that? That’s pretty vague,” Dash muttered.

Jensen’s features were indecipherable. “Submission. I require absolute submission in the women I’m with.” He shrugged casually. “Not many women are willing to give a man absolute control.”

It didn’t surprise Dash in the least. Jensen was a hardass bastard. Dash had figured they had more in common than just business interests, but they’d certainly never discussed their personal lives.

“I think Joss may surprise you in that area,” Dash said dryly. “Not that I want you testing her receptiveness. She’s mine.”

“Apparently we have more in common than I thought,” Jensen said. “And if I get what you’re saying, then you really are a lucky bastard. Too bad she’s taken. If she’s not only beautiful and intelligent but submissive as well, then I’m sorry I met her too late.”

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