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It was so natural for her to be wearing nothing now that she gave it no thought as she slid into the chair catty-corner to his at the head of the table. She was na**d and waiting every day that he came home, and more often than not, they had dinner together with her wearing nothing.

“Let me,” he murmured as she began to cut into her steak. “There’s nothing more I’d like than to feed you tonight.”

She stopped, allowing him to cut her steak into bite-size portions. He dressed her potato just like she liked it and then fed her the first bite of the tender meat.

He alternated feeding her a bite and taking one of his own. They didn’t converse. Heavy silence had fallen over the couple, but they never once broke their gazes, never looked away. Dash seemed to sense the importance of tonight. There was an air of expectation, and he seemed eager to get through dinner and onto whatever it was she had planned.

She smiled to herself. She wouldn’t make him wait long. Normally they’d watch television or a movie in the living room, she curled against him while he stroked her body or hair. He said he loved simply touching her, just being with her and sharing her company.

Other nights they’d sit on his back porch with a bottle of wine and talk about his day. How Jensen was working out and Kylie was grudgingly accepting her new boss.

But tonight she planned an early bedtime. She wanted to be in his arms when she told him she loved him and then she wanted to make love to him. She wanted to be the bold one. She wanted to show him the depth of her feelings for him. She only hoped he allowed it.

“Just leave the dishes,” she said huskily when they’d finished. “I’ll clear them away later. Right now I want us to go into the bedroom.”

Dash lifted one eyebrow, his eyes going dark and smoky with desire.

“Never let it be said I denied my darling anything.”

She smiled, allowing her love to shine in her eyes. He may wonder, but tonight she’d remove all doubt. It was time. Past time to take the next step. Hold her breath and take the leap.

She held out her hand, mimicking his actions of the past when he always held out his hand for her, usually to obey one of his commands. Tonight she was issuing the demands, however shyly done.

His hands roamed over her body as they walked side by side to the bedroom. It was as if he couldn’t keep himself from touching her. Like he was as addicted to her as she was to him.

When they entered the bedroom, she led him to the bed and pushed him down until he was perched on the edge. He stared at her with blatant curiosity but remained silent, allowing her free rein.

Then she sank to her knees between his open thighs and gathered his hands in hers.

“There’s something I want to tell you, Dash. Something important. And I wanted it to be at the perfect moment. When we weren’t making love. When we weren’t so caught up in the moment because I wanted you to know how much I mean these words.”

The hope and fear in his eyes was nearly her undoing. He looked as though he was torn between the two emotions and afraid to put his faith in the outcome.

She lifted his hands to her mouth, pressing a kiss to those gentle hands.

“I love you, Dash,” she whispered. “I love you so much.”

The instant joy that flooded his eyes was all the response she needed. His shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes as if savoring the moment. When they opened, there was a sheen of moisture, shocking her with the intensity of his reaction, his emotions.

“God, Joss,” he choked out. “If you only knew how long I’ve dreamed of this moment.”

He gathered her into his arms, lifting until she was in his lap, cradled against his chest. He held her tightly as if fearing she would slip away. He pressed kisses to her head, her temple, and then turned her face to kiss her eyes, her nose, her cheeks, every inch of her skin he could cover.

“I love you too, darling. God, I love you. I love you so much I ache with it. It’s been killing me not knowing, hoping that you felt the same for me as I feel for you. Have felt for you for so very long. Are you certain, Joss? Are you ready for this?”

Anxiety crept into his gaze as he awaited her response. She smiled, allowing the full force of her own joy and relief to bleed into her expression.

“Oh yes,” she breathed. “Do you really love me, Dash? Truly?”

“Honey, if I loved you any more, I’d die with it. You have no idea how very long I’ve loved you, ached for you, wanted you with my every breath.”

“Then neither of us has to hurt any longer,” she said softly. “I’m yours, Dash. Completely and utterly yours. I always will be, if you’ll have me.”

“Have you?” he asked hoarsely, incredulously. “Honey, I’ll take you any damn way I can get you. But I want you to be sure that this is what you want. Not just me, but our relationship. My dominance. Your submission. Because if it’s not what you want long term, then it doesn’t have to be that way. There is no sacrifice too great to make for you.”

Her smile widened and tears glittered in her own eyes. “I wouldn’t change a single thing about you—us. I want you just the way you are. I want us just the way we are right now. I want this, darling. I want us. I need your dominance. I want it with my every breath. It’s a part of me now, the best part. Never change, Dash. Never feel that you have to change for me. Because I want you just the way you are.”

He crushed her to him, his breaths coming raggedly, blowing over her hair. He trembled against her as if overcome with emotion. And then he kissed her again and again, like he was starved for her love. As though he needed it as desperately as she needed his love.

“Make love to me,” she whispered. “For the first time, truly make love to me.”

“That you never have to ask me for,” he whispered back. “But honey, it’s always been lovemaking from my point of view. No matter what we’ve done and will do, it’s always been with love. Always. That will never change.”

He rolled with her, tumbling her to the bed even as he fumbled with his clothing, pulling and tearing at them impatiently as she lay on the bed waiting. His na**d body covered hers, their legs twining, his erection cradled in the apex of her thighs.

The words made a difference. She hadn’t considered how much, but it made all the difference. Now that the words had been spoken, there was an urgency—and tenderness—that hadn’t been there before. Not that Dash had ever been anything but wonderful with her, but now there was so much more.

He kissed her passionately, taking her breath away and then returning it as their breaths mingled. He murmured his love between each kiss, and she savored the exquisite sensation of feeling that all-consuming love again. She’d never believed she could find it again, and she’d been so very wrong.

Dash was all she could hope for. She’d never want for anything else in her life. As long as she could have him. God forbid she ever lost him. She’d never survive losing the love of her life twice.

And their love was still new, shiny, still so much more to grow and learn. Just as she and Carson had done in the beginning. Their love had happened quickly but it had grown stronger with time, not weaker. She believed with everything in her heart that it would be the same for her and Dash.

“I’ve waited so long for you, Joss,” he whispered against her breasts. He lavished attention on each nipple, coaxing them to rigid peaks. “I never imagined having this. You. Your love. It’s more than I can take in. Swear to me you’ll never leave me. That you’ll be with me forever.”

“I’ll never leave,” she vowed. “You’ll always have me and my love, Dash.”

He crushed her to him again, nudging impatiently between her thighs as he slid, warm and deep, into her welcoming body. His body arched over hers, driving deep. He raised her arms over her head, connecting their hands and holding hers down as he undulated over her again and again.

“I’ll never forget the way you look tonight,” he said in a tender voice. “The way you looked the first time you said you loved me. I’ll remember this to my dying day.”

“As long as you don’t die anytime soon,” Joss said, pain filling her at the very thought.

His face was an instant wreath of regret. “That was thoughtless of me, honey. I didn’t mean it that way. I’ll never leave you willingly. Believe that.”

She smiled. “I know, Dash. I’ll try not to be so sensitive.”

“You can be any damn way you want to be. I wouldn’t change a thing about you, my love.”

He closed his eyes as he drove deeper still. But his movements were so very gentle and loving. He filled her, withdrew and then slowly and leisurely pressed forward again. Her orgasm, not as sharp as in the past, rose, mellow and smooth, spreading to the depths of her soul. It was a different kind of release. Emotional release and not just physical.

It was . . . love. And it made all the difference in the world.

“Come with me, Joss. Be with me. Always.”

“I’m with you,” she whispered. “Don’t hold back, Dash. Take us both over.”

He lowered his forehead to hers, a gesture she loved. He lightly kissed her even as his body shuddered above her and her own release fluttered like the sweetest rain. He let go of her hands and she wrapped both arms around him, holding him close, and they fell over together, consumed by the fires of their love.

Though it was early, she had no desire to get up. To even move. She was content to remain right here, in his arms, replete. Confident in his love. The future had never looked so bright. She felt as though she could take on the world and that Dash had given her wings back so she could fly.

“Stay with me,” she whispered as his body covered hers. “Just like this. Stay inside me. Let me feel you.”

He kissed her again and settled his weight more fully on top of her. She stroked her hands up and down his back as they both drifted off into sweet sleep.

TWENTY-SEVEN

THE dream was even more vivid than before. In her sleep, Joss moaned quietly as she faced Carson and Dash standing side by side. Both men looked expectantly at her, each demanding she make her choice.

“You can have me back, baby,” Carson said in the gentle, caring voice he always used with her. She couldn’t remember a time he’d ever raised his voice to her, even in anger.

They’d had arguments. What married couple didn’t? But he’d never once lost his temper. He hadn’t trusted himself not to lash out physically, as his father had done time and time again.

“We can be together again. Just like before. You just have to choose.”

Dash stood silently to the side looking as though he’d already lost. There was resignation in his eyes, and he began to turn away, much as Carson had done in her previous dream.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t go, Dash. I want . . . you.”

Carson’s look of shock ripped her heart in two. She could scarcely believe she’d chosen Dash over her beloved husband. Then sadness gripped his features and he glanced over at Dash.

“Take care of her,” he said in a low voice. “Love her as much as I do.”

“I will. I do,” Dash said.

Then he reached for Joss and she took a hesitant step forward. Then another and another until she was in his arms. When she glanced in Carson’s direction, he was gone, fading until it was as if he had never been there.

“Carson,” she whispered brokenly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Then she glanced up at Dash, offering him reassurance. That she’d chosen him. “I love you,” she whispered. “You.”

TWENTY-EIGHT

DASH slowly came awake, the memory of the previous night fresh and vivid in his mind. He smiled, reaching for Joss, fully intending to make love to her all over again. But when he turned to her, he froze because she had a fretful look on her face and she was shaking her head, a low moan escaping her lips.

Her next words paralyzed him. Cut him to the core, slicing open his heart and draining away all the optimism he’d awakened with.

“Carson,” she whispered in a tortured voice. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” There was a short pause and then, “I love you. You.”

Irrational anger seized him. Hurt and betrayal pounded through his veins. Goddamn it. Would Carson forever be between them? Would she never be able to let him go?

Her eyelids fluttered open and she looked up at him in sleepy confusion. Then her brow furrowed as she saw the evidence of his fury.

“Dash?”

“I’m glad you realize who’s in bed with you,” he said in an icy tone.

Her mouth dropped open. “What? What are you talking about?” She pushed up to her elbow, her hair falling like a curtain over her shoulders. “Dash, why are you so angry?”

The hurt confusion in her voice just pissed him off even more.

“You can’t let him go,” Dash said harshly. “Within hours of telling me you love me, you’re dreaming of him. Telling him you love him in your dream and apologizing, for fuck’s sake. For what? Cheating on him? Being disloyal to a dead man? Here’s a piece of information for you, Joss. Carson is dead. He’s not coming back. He left you and he’s not coming back. Get over it and deal with it.”

She went utterly pale, staring at him in disbelief.

“I’ll never measure up,” he continued brutally, driven to make her hurt every bit as much as he was hurting. “I don’t appreciate being a poor substitute for the man you lost, the man you can’t have. I’ll be damned if I do it any longer. I’ve been patient. I’ve been understanding. I’ve given you everything you’ve asked for.”

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