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“You were never a substitute,” she said hoarsely.

“I refuse to have a third person in our bed, Joss. A dead man at that. It’s occurred to me that any man would have done for you. You don’t want to move on. You just want someone to f**k you and play master to your submissive. Hell, it would have been just any man, or don’t you remember that night at The House? It’s obvious you weren’t particular and any dick would have done.”

“You’re wrong,” she choked out, tears clouding her eyes and knotting her throat. “And I’m not going to lie here while you say things to purposely hurt me.”

“Good,” he said savagely. “It’s about time you hurt a tenth as much as I’ve hurt over the last years. I’m tired of trying to live up to a dead man’s memory. When are you going to accept that he’s gone? Jesus, Joss, even your safe word is a reminder of him. As if you need him to protect you from me. He’s constantly between us because you put him there and I can’t continue this lie any longer.”

“Are you saying we’re over?” she asked, her voice cracking, much like his own heart was shattering. “After I told you I loved you?”

“I can’t go on like this any longer, Joss. I’ve wasted far too much time waiting for something that will evidently never happen. I can’t continue putting my life on hold for a woman who will never truly be mine. I deserve better. You deserve better. And until you can put the past behind you for good and let go and move on, we don’t have a chance.”

He ran his hand roughly through his hair, frustrated, heartbroken and pissed.

Joss pushed herself up and hugged her knees together protectively, and it killed him that she thought she needed protection against him. But then hadn’t he just ripped her into the same shreds she’d ripped him into?

“I can’t believe you would be so callous,” she said, tears slipping down her cheeks. “You demanded my trust, expected it and would accept no less, but it’s obvious you haven’t given me that same trust you’ve demanded. I can’t be with a man who demands everything from me but gives nothing of himself in return. And certainly not his trust.”

“I guess that’s that then,” he said savagely, furious that she was making him feel guilt that he shouldn’t. He wasn’t the one holding back. He wasn’t the one refusing to let go of the past.

“Get out,” she said in a low voice. “Just get out. Go to work. Do whatever it is you do. But leave me the hell alone.”

“This is my house, goddamn it.”

She went even paler and then rolled from the bed, scrambling for clothing. “You’re right, Dash. This is your house. Your home. Not mine. It’s never been mine. I haven’t been allowed in. It’s you putting barriers between us, not me.”

“Bullshit,” he bit out. “Don’t kill yourself getting your stuff. I’m out of here. You’ll have the day to do whatever the hell it is you want to do.”

With that he strode to the closet, yanking out pants and a shirt, not bothering with a shower. He needed to get out before he said or did worse. Before he did something really stupid like get on his knees and beg her forgiveness. Like telling her it didn’t matter if he could never have all of her, that he’d take whatever she had to give. He’d once thought that he could be satisfied with any part of her. Any part at all. He’d thought that something was better than nothing.

He was wrong.

He couldn’t—wouldn’t—settle for anything less than one hundred percent of her.

Joss maintained her composure only until Dash slammed out of the house and then she fell to her knees, burying her face in her hands as sobs tore from her throat.

How could he love her and say all the horrible things he’d said? She’d been so careful not to put Carson between them. Since they’d gotten together she’d stopped mentioning Carson at all. When before they talked easily about a man they both loved. Now? It was as if Carson never existed because they never brought him up.

Dash didn’t trust her. She’d been right. For all he demanded of her, he hadn’t given her the same in return. It wasn’t fair. She’d given him everything. Her trust. Her love. Her submission. And he’d vowed to cherish that gift. To protect her. And yet he’d torn her apart with bitter, careless words.

There was no going back. No undoing what had been said. His words rang in her ears, would always ring in her ears. No amount of wishing would make their memory go away.

She had to get out. Couldn’t stay here a minute longer. She frantically began stuffing her belongings in her suitcases and went about systematically ridding the entire house of her presence.

But the things Dash had bought her, gifts, jewelry, clothing? She left it all neatly piled on his bed so he would see it when he returned and know she didn’t take a damn thing with her. She didn’t want it. She couldn’t be bought. Not when she’d been willing to give him everything freely and without conditions.

She fumbled with her cell phone, punching Chessy’s number in with shaking fingers. She needed a shoulder to cry on. Needed someone who would understand the turmoil she was going through.

“Hey, girlfriend. How’s it going? Did you tell Dash the big news?”

A low sob welled from her throat.

“Joss? What the hell is wrong? Are you crying? What’s happened? Where are you? Are you all right?” Chessy demanded.

“I need you,” Joss choked out. “Are you home? Can I come over?”

“Of course, honey. I’m here. But you sound so upset. Where are you? I’ll come get you.”

“No,” Joss said in a low voice. “I’ll come to you. I’ll explain everything when I get there. Give me half an hour, okay?”

“I’ll be here,” Chessy said firmly. “Be careful, Joss. And when you get here I want to know exactly what happened, and you don’t leave a word out.”

Joss agreed and then ended the call. She made another sweep of the house, making sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. And then she made three trips, hauling her luggage out to her car.

When the last suitcase was stuffed into the passenger seat, she turned and stared back at Dash’s house one last time. A house she’d considered her home for a brief, beautiful period of time. Now? It represented hell.

She pulled out of Dash’s neighborhood driving much too fast. She eased off the accelerator, not wanting to be reckless and take unnecessary risks. She pounded the wheel in frustration when an accident ahead backed traffic up. She turned onto another street, intending to cut over and drive around the park. It was longer, but with the slowdown in traffic, it would take her the same amount of time, and she wouldn’t be stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

She just wanted to be at Chessy’s, where she could pour out her grief to someone who loved her. It felt as if the rug had been yanked from underneath her and she supposed it had. After a night when the future had seemed so utterly perfect, it was now a gaping, yawning black hole stretching as far as the eye could see.

She didn’t see the child dart into the street chasing a ball until it was too late. Horrified that she could hurt or kill the little girl, she yanked the steering wheel as hard as she could, not even having time to slam on the brakes.

She hit the curb hard enough to blow out her front tire, and as she looked up, she saw the sprawling oak tree dead ahead. There was nothing she could do. Her tiny convertible hit the tree with a sickening crunch of metal and the sharp sound of shattering glass. Her head slammed forward as the air bags exploded in her face. Pain registered and as she blinked, blood slid down her forehead, clouding her vision.

She wondered if she’d live just as she blacked out and floated away in a sea of nothingness.

TWENTY-NINE

DASH stared broodingly out his office window and replayed the morning’s events over and over. Had he overreacted? Part of him said yeah. The other part, the practical, unemotional part, said no, that he’d been right to be angry. And certainly he had no right to lash out at her like that, to hurt her so badly.

But damn it, enough was enough. What should have been the best night of his entire life, the culmination of an impossible dream, had ended in his worst nightmare. Maybe it had always been an impossibility. Perhaps Joss wasn’t ready—would never be ready—to let go.

So where did that leave him? A week ago he would have vowed that he would be satisfied with any part of her. That he would wait, be patient for her to come around and hope that eventually she would be in a place where she could give him back in full measure what he was willing to give her.

But when she’d told him she loved him, and then wept for her husband the morning after, he’d been seized by a fatalistic sensation that she would never truly be his. His hopes had been crushed in that one instant, and he’d reacted much like a wounded animal. Hell, he was wounded. The kind of wound one never recovered from.

His office door burst open and he turned, irritated over the interruption. To his surprise Tate strode inside, his expression angry.

“What the hell did you do to Joss?” Tate demanded.

Dash sighed. “That didn’t take long.”

“What the f**k is that supposed to mean? Chessy is worried out of her mind. Where is Joss? What happened between the two of you?”

Dash’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What are you talking about? Why are you asking me where she is?”

“Because apparently you were the last person who saw her,” Tate said through gritted teeth. “She called Chessy in hysterics over two hours ago. She was upset and crying but she wouldn’t tell Chessy what was wrong. She asked Chessy if she could come over, that she needed her, and that she would be there in half an hour. She didn’t show and Chessy can’t get an answer on her cell number, her home number or your home number for that matter. She sent me to drag your ass out of your cave since you aren’t answering your cell either.”

Dash paled, dread gripping his insides. “I don’t know where she is. She was at my house . . . in my bed when I left.” He winced, closing his eyes. “Or at least she was in my bed, but she would have left.”

“And why would she have left?” Tate growled.

“That’s none of your f**king business,” Dash said icily.

“The hell it’s not! Chessy is home worried sick about her. Hell, the only way I could get her to stay her ass at home and not run out to look for her is by promising to find her myself. Joss is not the hysterical or irresponsible type, so if she was that upset and she’s missing, then something is damn well wrong.”

The knot grew larger in Dash’s throat. Panic slid down his spine, momentarily paralyzing him.

“I said some pretty terrible things to her,” Dash murmured. “Jesus. When I left, she was crying.”

“You left her that upset?” Tate asked in a disgusted voice.

Dash closed his eyes. “I was pretty pissed.”

“I’m not even going to ask because the only thing I give a f**k about is my wife worrying herself sick over Joss and whether Joss herself is all right. I take it you haven’t heard from her.”

Dash shook his head. “She pretty much told me to go to hell. But I’m already there. I have been for years.”

Tate’s phone rang and he snatched it up. “Chessy?” he said. “Is she okay? Did you hear from her?”

There was a long pause and then Tate paled. Dash rushed to where Tate stood, trying to hear Chessy’s voice, but Tate held it too close to his ear for Dash to tell anything.

“Goddamn it. No, you aren’t going anywhere. No, Chessy! I’ll be right over. Don’t you dare leave the house. One accident is enough. I don’t want you driving when you’re this upset.”

Dash’s knees buckled and he had to grab his desk to keep from hitting the floor.

Tate hung up and then fixed Dash with a cold stare.

“The hospital just called Chessy. Apparently they saw she was the last call on Joss’s cell and they called her. Joss has been in a car accident. It appears to be serious. They wouldn’t comment on her condition over the phone, but they asked that Chessy or her closest family member get to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

“I’m going,” Dash bit out. “What hospital? I can be there before you go home and get Chessy.”

Tate looked at him, anger brewing in his eyes. Then he blew out his breath. “Hermann Memorial. The ER.”

Dash didn’t wait for anything more. He grabbed his keys and ran out the door to the bank of elevators. Kylie called out as he passed her office, but he didn’t stop. He didn’t have time to explain, even if Kylie should know. Chessy would call her later. For now, his only purpose was to get to Joss and pray he wasn’t too late.

THIRTY

WHEN Dash strode into the emergency room, he immediately demanded to know Joss’s condition and if he could see her. A police officer was standing close to the reception desk, and when he heard Dash say Joss’s name, he motioned for Dash.

Frustrated by the delay, he stepped aside with the cop.

“Do you know how she is?” Dash asked bluntly. “Did you work the scene? What the hell happened?”

The police officer sighed. “Can I ask the nature of your relationship to Mrs. Breckenridge?”

“I’m her fiancé,” he lied. “She lives with me.” Another lie. “I saw her just this morning, not long before this apparently happened. I left for work and now this.” At least that much was the truth.

“Was she upset about anything? Under duress? Stressed?” He paused a moment. “Do you have any reason to believe that she’s suicidal?”

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