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Joss sighed, worried over her friend. She reached out to squeeze Kylie’s hand.

“How has work been? How is Jensen working out?”

Kylie made a face. “He bugs me.”

“How come?” Chessy asked curiously. “That man is divine to look at. So dark and brooding. He makes me shiver, and I have my own very possessive dominant man to go home to.”

Joss laughed again but sobered at Kylie’s haunted look.

“That’s just it. He’s so quiet and intense. He just looks at me. Stares. Like he’s trying to see into my mind or whatever. It bothers me, and what am I supposed to say? I can’t very well tell him to stop looking at me. He and Dash both would think I was crazy. Maybe I am,” she added with a shrug.

“You’ll be fine,” Joss said, still holding on to her hand. “He seems very nice and I’m sure you’ll warm up to him.”

Kylie didn’t look convinced. Instead she directed the conversation back at Joss.

“So how are things with you and Dash? I have to say, I’ve never seen the man so happy. He’s in a disgustingly good mood every day at work. And he all but races out the door every day between four thirty and five. I don’t think a complete meltdown in the business would force him to stay after hours.”

Chessy giggled. “He’s in looooove. It’s obvious. The man is a complete goner. ‘Stick a fork in him’ done.”

Joss’s cheeks colored as heat rose in her face.

“The question is, are you?” Chessy asked pointedly.

Joss sighed and then rubbed her face with her hands. “Yes. No. I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s bothered me because I think of Carson less and less. I used to think about him all the time, and now? I’ll go days without even bringing him to mind. Does that make me a terrible person?”

Chessy’s face wrinkled in sympathy. Even Kylie’s expression softened. Both women reached for one of Joss’s hands.

“No, honey, it doesn’t,” Chessy said gently. “You loved Carson and he loved you. But he’s gone. He’s been gone for three years. That’s more than enough time for you to grieve. It’s time to let go and move on with your life. With Dash if he’s who you choose. You have no reason to suffer guilt over not thinking about Carson as much now. It’s normal. You have a new love. Embrace it. Don’t hold back. You can’t live in the past forever.”

“I know I said some horrible things to you, Joss, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I want you to be happy. Truly, I do. As Chessy said, Carson is gone.”

Kylie’s voice broke and she visibly had to collect herself before she continued.

“Dash is a good man. The best. And it’s so obvious he cares deeply for you. If he is who makes you happy, then go for it. Don’t let what I or anyone else thinks hold you back.”

Tears burned Joss’s eyelids as she stared back at the sincerity in her friends’ gazes.

“Thank you,” she choked out. “It’s been weighing on me so heavily. I had dreams a few weeks ago. When things with Dash were just heating up. Right after I moved in with him. And in those dreams, I had the choice of whether to have Carson back or hold on to Dash. And I couldn’t decide,” she said, agony in her voice. “I felt terrible because I’d always dreamed of having Carson back. I would have done anything to make that happen. And yet in my dream, I didn’t take that chance. I hesitated because Dash was there and I didn’t want to lose him.”

“Fuck your dreams,” Chessy said crudely. “They f**k with your mind, and here’s the thing, Joss. You can’t have Carson back, so it was a stupid dream and just your guilt manifesting itself in that dream. Carson is gone. So whether you would choose to have him back is a moot point. You can’t have him back. You’ll never get him back. So what you have to decide is if you’re going to spend the rest of your life grieving for him or if you’re going to take control of your future and not let a man who adores you go.”

“Trust Chessy to open up the can of whoop-ass,” Kylie said in amusement. “But I agree with her here. Carson loved you, Joss. He adored you. There was never any question of that. And I don’t believe for one minute that he’d like what you’re doing to yourself. He’d want you to be happy. I want you to be happy. But you have to want it for yourself.”

Joss nodded. “I love you guys. I’m so glad to see y’all both. I swear I won’t be so absent from now on. You’re too important to me.”

“Bet your ass you won’t,” Chessy muttered. “I’ll come to Dash’s house and haul you out by the hair. I was close to doing just that when you called to invite us to lunch, so consider yourself warned, girlfriend. I won’t be as patient in the future.”

Joss and Kylie both burst into laughter. Joss’s heart lightened as she stared at the women she loved so much. She’d needed this. This time with them and their advice and support. She hadn’t realized just how much the whole situation with Carson and Dash had weighed on her until she’d voiced her issues.

They seemed silly now and maybe she’d needed her friends’ approval even as she cringed over the idea that she couldn’t simply own her choices and move forward. It wasn’t fair to Dash or herself.

“So when are you going to tell him you love him?” Chessy asked curiously.

The question startled Joss because she hadn’t fully admitted the depth of her feelings to herself, much less anyone else. But as she pondered Chessy’s question, she realized that she did. It was there. Maybe it had been there from the start.

“It just seems so soon,” Joss murmured.

Kylie snorted. “Like you didn’t fall for my brother just as quickly? Hell, Joss, you both fell head over heels. I think Carson was a goner before you were. And look how well that turned out. If you’re concerned that falling in love so quickly is a bad thing, consider that you and Carson would still be together and in love if he hadn’t died. Falling fast doesn’t make it any less strong. If it’s there, it’s there.”

“A timeline doesn’t make love any less real or true,” Chessy said gently. “Kylie’s right. You and Carson both fell hard and fast, and it didn’t make your love any less solid, just like it won’t make your feelings for Dash any less strong just because you fell so quickly. Look at me and Tate. We were together, what, two weeks before he proposed?”

“And are you still happy?” Joss asked challengingly.

She and Kylie exchanged quick glances. It was obvious Kylie was as worried about Chessy’s marriage as Joss was herself. It was equally evident, though Joss hadn’t spent much time with Chessy over the last weeks, that something was off between her and Tate.

Chessy’s smile faltered but she quickly recovered. “It’s fine. We’re fine,” she amended. “Just different now. But relationships are like that. We can’t stay in the honeymoon stage forever. Our needs are different now. He’s juggling a very difficult business and he’s often called away with clients or has to travel. But we’ll be okay. I still love him as much as I ever have and I know he loves me.”

Somewhat reassured by her friend’s fervent response, Joss nodded. Kylie still had a look of doubt on her face, but that was Kylie. Fiercely loyal and protective of her friends, even if her mouth got away from her at times. But Joss knew that Kylie had her’s and Chessy’s best interests at heart, and that her heart was as big as the state of Texas.

“So let’s order. I’m starving,” Chessy said, swiftly changing the topic.

Joss allowed her to redirect the focus from her and Tate’s relationship, and Joss motioned for the waiter hovering nearby. The women ordered and then spent the rest of lunch laughing and catching up.

But Joss’s thoughts drifted time and time again to Dash. And when she’d fully cement their relationship by offering him the words. I love you. Such simple words, and yet they terrified her because it signaled a whole different level of vulnerability for her.

She thought Dash cared for her very deeply. Perhaps he had for a long time, judging by his past comments. But he hadn’t told her he loved her. Perhaps he was merely waiting for her to say it first. He’d already risked so much, and she could understand why he wouldn’t want to put himself out there before knowing exactly where she stood.

If he could do so much for her and be so patient while she got her head together, the least she could do was take the first step and put everything on the line.

But what if he didn’t believe her? What if it was too soon and too fast? Would he think she was so caught up in the moment that her emotions ruled all else?

Her brow furrowed in concentration. Chessy and Kylie both looked curiously at her but neither spoke, though question was obvious in their eyes.

“I’ll tell him when we aren’t making love,” Joss declared and then promptly blushed to the roots of her hair as she realized how far her outburst had carried.

Chessy and Kylie laughed and then Joss joined in, not caring who heard her.

“Good idea,” Chessy drawled. “Wouldn’t do for him to miss your declaration because he was too caught up in the moment when his dick is ruling his brain.”

“Oh for God’s sake, Chessy,” Kylie muttered.

Chessy shrugged. “Not saying it’s a bad thing. Sometimes men are better off when they let their dicks do their thinking for them. You get better results that way.”

“I’m going to tell him tonight,” Joss said impulsively, suddenly eager to share her feelings with Dash.

She sobered momentarily as she silently regarded her two best friends. “I never thought I’d find love again. I thought I’d used my only shot at finding my soul mate with Carson. But Dash . . . I love him. Is it possible to find perfection twice in a lifetime?”

Chessy and Kylie both smiled softly at her.

“You just answered your own question, girlfriend,” Chessy said. “You love him. So I guess you did find your second soul mate.”

TWENTY-SIX

JOSS flew around the kitchen, making sure dinner was prepared at just the right moment. Dash had called a mere five minutes ago and he would be home in ten. Which meant she only had a few minutes to set the table, plate the steaks and sides, before hurrying into the living room to wait for him na**d and kneeling.

His welcome would be brief or dinner would be kept waiting and end up cold. But she had plans for tonight. She wanted it to be special even if they veered momentarily from him controlling all aspects of their relationship.

Tonight she wanted to be granted the opportunity to do for him. She wanted to direct the events. An intimate dinner. And then she wanted to tell him she loved him. Before they made love. She wanted him to be sure of her. To know she wasn’t caught up in the moment and overcome and wouldn’t be blurting out words she didn’t mean.

How would he react? It was the question that had burned in her mind ever since lunch with Chessy and Kylie. And would he return the words? She knew in her heart that he loved her. Had likely loved her a long time. She hoped he’d greet her declaration with joy and relief and they could move forward in a more solid, permanent relationship.

It befuddled her that just weeks earlier she’d greeted the anniversary of her husband’s death with sadness and resignation that she was doomed to a loveless existence and that she could only hope to fill the aching void with sex and dominance. But she hadn’t expected . . . love.

And she certainly hadn’t expected a longtime friend, her husband’s best friend, to be the one whom she fell in love with.

A wide, goofy grin split her lips and she took the sizzling steaks off the stovetop grill and plated both. Next, she took out the potatoes and plated them while laying out all the condiments.

Checking her watch, she realized she had barely two minutes, perhaps less if there had been no traffic. She flew to the bedroom and quickly disrobed, taking a moment to straighten her hair. Then she went back into the living room and not a moment too soon because she heard Dash pull into the drive.

She sank to her knees, her entire body trembling. Her nerves were coiled tight and she was jittery with anticipation. This could be the best—or worst—night of her life. She was praying for the best.

The door opened and there he was, filling the living room with his larger-than-life presence. His smile was immediate when his gaze fell on her, and he strode toward her but then he stopped just in front of her and sniffed the air appreciatively.

Then he leaned down and pulled her up and into his arms. He kissed her long and leisurely, his voice husky.

“What’s cooking, honey? It smells wonderful. I swear, every day coming home to you is better than the last. I don’t know how you keep topping the day before, but somehow you manage it.”

She smiled broadly, wrapping her arms around his neck to pull him down for another kiss.

“Steaks and baked potatoes. I have something special planned for this evening. Do you mind?”

His eyebrows rose. “Do I get any hints?”

She grinned. “Nope. You’ll just have to play along.”

He smiled back at her. “In that case, lead on. I’m yours to command.”

She took his hand, lacing their fingers together in a familiar gesture. They often touched, even in not so intimate ways. She had gotten used to having him close at all times. His open affection. She loved it—and him.

She led him into the dining room, where the places were set. Candles were lit and she left the overhead lights off, with just the light from the next room casting an intimate glow over the table.

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