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Dash sighed again and got out, walking to the entrance of The House. He wasn’t even interested in any action tonight, but he was restless and on edge. Joss had occupied his thoughts the entire day. Ever since he’d taken her to the cemetery and had seen the difference in her.

He didn’t know what to make of the abrupt change. She’d walked out of her house in jeans and a T-shirt, looking so young and beautiful that it still made his chest ache to remember the image of her.

And then she’d asked to be left alone at the grave and she’d stayed there, her lips moving as she’d spoken to Carson for a long while. When she’d returned, there was a marked difference in her demeanor. And then that spiel about not needing him. Apologizing to him, for fuck’s sake. Apologizing for being a goddamn burden. For taking up too much of his life and time. Hell, she didn’t even realize she was his life. Or at least he hoped she would be.

He checked in with the man working the door and wandered through the lower levels. The social rooms. The places where people met up, drank good wine, mingled before moving upstairs to the common room or one of the private suites.

There were plenty of beautiful women and no shortage of interested looks thrown his way. It had been a while since he’d come here to work off some steam. Usually after he’d spent time with Joss, pretending the woman he was with was her. It made him a bastard, but he made certain the woman he was with was taken care of. She had no way of knowing that she was a poor substitute for the one woman he couldn’t have.

Was she finally moving on? She’d talked the talk during the car ride home. She’d been blunt, painfully so, and it had cost her. He’d seen the na**d emotion in her eyes when she’d said that Carson was gone and he wasn’t coming back and she had to move on and accept that. But did she mean it?

He was afraid to hope. And he was afraid of making the wrong move. He couldn’t afford to f**k it all up by pushing her too soon. She viewed him as a friend. She viewed herself as a burden to him. Someone he’d babysat through her grief. Never even realizing that he lived for the moments when he was with her.

Carson had known that his best friend was in love with his wife. He’d known and accepted it. Dash had been afraid that it would ruin not only their friendship, but their business partnership as well. But Carson had understood. He trusted Dash never to act on that attraction. And he’d also exacted a promise from Dash that were anything ever to happen to Carson, Dash would be there for Joss.

Hell of a note when his best friend entrusted his wife to his care if something happened to him.

Worse was the fact that Carson had exacted that promise mere weeks before he’d been killed in an accident. Almost as if he knew. Had he sensed that something would happen and that Joss would be left a young widow?

At the time, Dash had brushed off the very serious pledge that Carson had confronted him with.

If anything ever happens to me, man, I want you to promise me. Promise me that you’ll be there for Joss. I know you love her. If there ever comes a day that I can’t be there for her, I want you to promise me that you’ll take care of her and love her like I do.

The words echoed through his mind. Prophetic? Or just coincidence?

At the time, the promise had just been a painful reminder of all that Carson had and all that Dash didn’t. Joss was . . . She was beautiful. Not just physically. She could light up a room by simply walking in. She had a gentle smile that could charm even the hardest heart. And she’d never so much as looked in the direction of another man after she’d met Carson. God knows, there’d been no shortage of men only too willing to seduce another man’s wife. But Joss acted as though she had no clue of her effect on men. And that made her all the more desirable to Dash.

After making a quick round of the social rooms, he picked up a glass of wine—Damon Roche served only the best—and headed up the stairs to the common room.

There was the usual eclectic mix of sexcapades occurring in the large, open room. Though there were no actual partitions, the room was sectioned off simply by the participants taking their own spaces for their activities.

A mixture of sounds and smells greeted him as he walked farther into the room. The slap of flesh on flesh. The smack of a whip or a flogger. The sighs, moans and cries of ecstasy. Some of pain. Some of pleasure. The air was thick with the scent of sex.

He crossed the room, taking in the occupants, wanting to ensure that Tate and Chessy weren’t present tonight. Not that he was a prude by any stretch, but seeing his other best friends ha**g s*x wasn’t high on his list of priorities. Though he shouldn’t have worried because he hadn’t seen them at The House in months. The few times in the past he had seen them, he’d cut short his own visit, because he would never do anything to make Chessy uncomfortable.

She was a very special woman, and Tate was a lucky son of a bitch to have such perfection. Submissive. Beautiful. Gifting Tate with her absolute trust. There was not a more precious gift than a woman who gave her submission to a man.

It was what he wanted for himself, what he’d always sought out in any relationship he’d formed. But for Joss, he’d deny that part of himself if it was the only way he had a chance at having her. Knowing Carson’s background, Dash knew with certainty that Carson and Joss had never delved into that lifestyle.

But then he’d never gone beyond casual sex after Joss. Once she’d come into Carson’s life, a whirlwind, there hadn’t been another woman for Dash. He sated his needs, made certain his partner’s were met as well and then he moved on, never willing to commit, even though he’d known that Joss was unattainable. Only now that wasn’t true. She was free. But could she ever love another man as she’d loved Carson?

That was the question of the day. And could Dash be content with only a part of her heart?

He nodded before he could stop himself. Hell yes, he’d take any part of her he could get. The question was, when did he make his move?

Today had given him the first ray of hope in three years that Joss was ready to move past her grief and live her life again. He’d been patient. He’d been whatever she needed him to be. But he wanted to be so much more.

He retreated to the corner of the room, politely declining with a gentle smile a woman who offered to service him. Another night he may have let her, close his eyes and imagine Joss under his firm but tender grasp. But tonight his thoughts were consumed with Joss, and he couldn’t muster the heart to pretend as he’d done so many other times.

His family thought him a fool for not moving beyond his feelings for Joss a long time ago. They’d eyed him with sympathy for the last three years. His brothers had even asked him when he was going to act. But he’d known it wasn’t time. Not then. But now?

He couldn’t help the petal of hope that unfurled when he’d been with Joss earlier today. He’d seen the difference in her eyes and in her demeanor. But then that bullshit apology for being a burden, and she’d acted as though she were finished being that burden to him.

To hell with that. If she thought he was just going to step aside, she was very wrong.

He stood watching with waning enthusiasm, not even sure what had driven him here tonight. What he wanted was to be with Joss. Watching a movie and trying to get her mind off her grief, which is what he’d done the last two anniversaries—and plenty of times in between. The day hadn’t gone at all as he’d expected. He’d cleared his calendar, made certain his clients were covered so that he could spend the day with Joss.

He hadn’t expected her to all but dismiss him after their trip to the cemetery.

His gaze was drawn to the entryway where a couple entered, and he did an immediate double take.

What the ever-loving fuck?

He stared, unable to believe what he was seeing. Joss had just walked through the doorway, a man Dash knew from The House at her side, his arm wrapped intimately around her waist, his hand splayed very possessively over her hip, leaving no question of his . . . ownership. Or impending ownership.

She was dressed in a killer black sheath that hugged and outlined every single one of her perfect curves. And she wore a pair of fuck-me shoes that just begged for a man to do just that. Fuck her in those heels until she screamed his name over and over.

Her hair was upswept, a few tendrils floating lazily down her slender neck, drawing attention to the delicateness of her features.

And she looked scared to death.

Dash was striding across the room before he even realized what he was doing. For that matter, what the f**k was she doing? Here! In a goddamn establishment devoted to all manner of sexuality.

And the man she was with was a regular at The House. He had a string of submissives, and rarely was he with the same woman twice in a row. And yet here he was with his arm wrapped very possessively around Joss, lust evident in his eyes.

What the hell did she think she was doing?

He was just a few feet away when Joss lifted her shocked gaze to his, her mouth falling open in surprise just as mortification seized her features. Panic flickered in her eyes and she took a step away from the man at her side.

The man, Craig, was quick to pull her back, and that infuriated Dash all the more. Dash reached for Joss’s arm, swiftly pulling her into the safety of his side.

“What the hell, Corbin?” Craig demanded, reaching for Joss’s other hand.

Dash immediately inserted himself between Joss and Craig, shielding Joss with his body.

“Get the f**k away from her,” Dash barked. “Now.”

Craig’s eyebrows shot up and he stared for a moment before finally putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender. Not typical for a man like Craig. A Dominant who didn’t yield to anyone. But then Dash was convinced he likely looked like a crazy person about to explode, judging by the wariness in Craig’s gaze. And Craig wouldn’t be wrong about that assumption. Dash was precariously close to losing his tenuous hold on his control.

“I’ll just go find other company for the evening,” Craig murmured.

“You do that,” Dash said behind clenched teeth. “And don’t ever make the mistake of coming near her again or I’ll take you apart. We clear?”

“Yeah, man, I got it.”

Craig gave Dash—and Joss—a wide berth before continuing into the room.

Dash turned to see Joss’s pale, shocked face and swore under his breath. He grabbed her hand and hauled her into the hallway. She still hadn’t uttered a word. Her face was stricken, and she looked so humiliated that Dash wanted to put his fist through the wall. The last thing he wanted was to embarrass her, but f**k it all. What was he supposed to do when she showed up looking like a woman a man would die to possess? A woman he was dying to possess.

He ushered her down the stairs and down the hallway to the exit as fast as he could without making her trip in those spikes disguised as shoes. He was tempted to throw her over his shoulder and barrel out like a caveman. He managed to temper that particular urge. Barely.

As soon as he had her outside, he turned to her, trying to curb the anger that coiled through his veins.

“Where’s your car?” he clipped out.

“I d-didn’t drive,” she stammered out. “I took a cab.”

Jesus. That was worse. Had she not expected to go home alone tonight? Was she planning to sleep over with whatever guy she hooked up with here? But then how the hell did he know if this was even her first time? For all he knew she could be a regular and maybe she and Craig had hooked up before. Dash certainly hadn’t been in enough recently to be caught up on the goings-on at the club.

He herded her over to his car and opened the passenger door, ushering her inside.

“Dash?”

The one word, laced with fear and uncertainty, cut him to the core. Damn it, the last thing he wanted was for her to be afraid of him. He had to calm the f**k down before he lost his damn mind. And destroyed any chance he had with her.

“I’m taking you home,” he said in a more gentle tone.

He walked around to the driver’s side and slid in, starting the engine and backing out almost before he had his door closed. He roared down the winding drive that led up to the house and waited impatiently for the gate to open to allow him to exit.

As he accelerated down the highway, he felt Joss’s nervous gaze flicker toward him. Saw her bite the bottom of her lip as she obviously struggled with what she wanted to say.

He reached for her hand, squeezing it in a reassuring manner.

“We’ll talk when we get home,” he said, his voice a command, one that he hadn’t used with Joss before.

But it worked. She immediately closed her mouth, though her bottom lip was still sucked between her teeth as she nibbled nervously. Mortification still gripped her features, and it made Dash ache to know she was suffering. Embarrassed. Likely thinking he was going to tear a strip off her hide. And maybe he was. He wasn’t at all sure what the f**k he was going to say to her yet.

They drove the rest of the way in tense silence, her hand firmly trapped in his. He could feel her trembling and it slayed him that she feared him. He’d nip that in the bud just as soon as he got to the bottom of this.

She looked surprised when he pulled into his neighborhood, which was just a few miles from her own subdivision. She turned to look at him, a clear question in her eyes.

“We’ll talk here,” he said shortly as he pulled into his drive.

She went silent again, her head bowed as she stared at her lap. Undone by her defeated demeanor, he reached over and gently cupped her chin, nudging until she was forced to look up at him.

“It’ll be okay, honey. Now come inside so we can talk.”

She nodded and he got out quickly, walking around to collect her from the car. He led her inside his house, satisfaction gripping him that she was in his space. Finally.

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