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“Look at me, Joss. This is important.”

She lifted her gaze to his, all the turmoil boiling in her gorgeous blue eyes.

“I want you to take as long as you need to think about it—us. But I want you to promise me that you won’t go back to The House. Not without me. Not for any reason. Not until this is decided between you and me, and I hope to hell that, even if you don’t choose me, that you won’t go there on your own. I don’t want to imagine you under another man’s hands. Him touching you everywhere I want to be touching you. Do this for me at least.”

“You’re issuing me an ultimatum,” she said in a low voice. “You want me to promise that if I don’t choose you, I’ll deny what my heart wants. What I need. How is that fair?”

“Love isn’t fair,” he said bluntly, watching the flash of surprise in her eyes, how they widened at his statement.

He didn’t follow up on it. It was certainly too soon to lay that on her, on top of everything else the evening had wrought. She needed time to ponder other matters without him spouting declarations of love that she wouldn’t believe were sincere.

“What I’m asking you for is a chance, Joss. Choose me. Let me initiate you into the world you want so badly. Give me that at least. If it’s not what you want, if it turns out this isn’t what you need, then we’ll step back and reevaluate. What I want is the opportunity—the exclusive opportunity, if you will. Because I’ve already said that I would have suppressed my need to dominate if that’s the only way I could have you. You knocked me for six when I saw you walk through the door into the common room and my world has been spinning ever since. All I want is a chance, honey. A chance. And I don’t want you going back there. Not without me. Not with anyone else until I’ve had the chance to prove to you that I’m all you need. Is that so wrong of me to ask?”

She stared at him for a long moment before finally and slowly shaking her head.

He leaned forward, brushing a kiss across her furrowed brow, trying to relax the lines that had formed under the force of her concentration.

“I’ll give you time, Joss. All the time you need. But don’t wait too long. You’ve waited this long to act. There’s no need to waste further time when this is something you’ve obviously given a lot of thought to. You know you can trust me. I hope to hell you already do. And that’s a huge step over any other man you would have chosen and a hell of a step up from the guy you came into the common room with. Because, honey? I care about you and your pleasure. Craig doesn’t and he wouldn’t. Given the opportunity, I’ll lay the f**king world at your feet. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to have you, to possess you. I just need the chance to prove it to you.”

The longing in her eyes was nearly his undoing. His impassioned speech had spoken to the heart of her. Of that he was certain.

“I won’t take long,” she said huskily. “I just need time to think. This is a lot. I mean I had no idea, Dash. Today was going to be me letting go. Not only of Carson, but of you as well. I felt like I’d been a burden to you for far too long and that it was time for me to stop leaning on you. Time to let you get on with your life. I can’t imagine you’ve had any long-term relationships. Most women wouldn’t appreciate you dropping everything to comfort your best friend’s widow. I thought I was doing you—and myself—a favor by picking up the pieces and standing on my own two feet. And now you want that even more. I can’t wrap my head around it, and as I said, I don’t want to make a snap decision that we’ll both regret. I care about you, Dash. Very much so. I don’t think I’ve ever properly thanked you for all you’ve done for me.”

“I don’t want your thanks, Joss. I want you. Simple. Just you. And your submission. But as I said, if it turns out that this isn’t what you want, then it doesn’t have to be that way between us. I’d sacrifice a hell of a lot to have you any way I can have you.”

Sorrow filled her eyes. “I don’t want that for you, Dash. I don’t want you to change for me. I don’t want you to be someone you aren’t. That’s as bad as if I’d expected—demanded—something from Carson I knew he wasn’t willing or able to give. I would have never asked him for that. So I can’t ask you to deny who you are for me.”

He pulled her forward into his arms, his lips finding hers, silencing her. She melted so sweetly into his body that it was all he could do not to sweep her into his arms and carry her to his bed. But he’d waited this long. He’d wait for as long as it took for her to be ready.

“How about you let me decide the sacrifices I make. Didn’t you make sacrifices for Carson? That’s what love is, honey. You wanted and needed something he couldn’t give you, but it didn’t make you love him any less.”

She went still against him and then nestled even farther into his embrace, tucking her head underneath his chin. God, they fit. Like two puzzle pieces. He wrapped both arms around her, anchoring her there, simply enjoying the feel of her in his arms in a way he’d never been able to enjoy before. Because now she knew where he stood, and she was allowing it. She damn well knew he was holding and touching her not out of friendship, but as a man who very much wanted her heart and soul.

“Now about that promise?”

She slowly drew away and looked him in the eye. “I promise, Dash. Just give me a little time to sort through all of this. It’s been a difficult day for me, and everything I thought was going to be, didn’t turn out the way I expected at all. I need to process this.”

He nodded and started to speak, but she continued on in a rush.

“I don’t want to use you, Dash. And maybe I was okay with using a stranger. Someone who didn’t mean anything to me. But I won’t use you. Not you. I won’t use you as a crutch or some experiment. You mean too much to me. Your friendship means too much to me.”

He smiled and tenderly stroked a piece of hair from her cheek to behind her ear. “But honey, I don’t mind if you use me. As long as the end result is having you. I’ve used all manner of women over the past few years. I’m not proud of that fact, but it is what it is. They were all a poor substitute for what I couldn’t have at the time. You.”

“You pretended they were me?” she whispered in an astonished tone.

He nodded. “Again, I’m not proud of it. But there it is. I couldn’t have you, so I slaked my hunger and desire for you with other women. And maybe it changes the way you’ll look at me. It’s a chance I have to take. But I won’t lie to you. There have certainly been other women. I thought I was in a position to never have what I most wanted, so I dealt with it.”

“I don’t fault you for being with other women, Dash. God, how could I? I was married. I would have never expected you to be faithful to a woman who wasn’t even yours!”

“I’m glad,” he said simply. “Because, honey? Once I have you, there’ll never be another woman. And you can take that to the bank.”

Her eyes widened in surprise again. It was as if it had all just sunk in at once. Her eyes dulled and went hazy with shock. Her body trembled and she balled her fingers together to try to hide the fact that they were shaking.

“I want you to stay here tonight, Joss.”

He held up his hand when the protest formed on her lips. And then he cupped her chin, stroking his thumb down her jawline.

“You’ve been thrown one hell of a curveball. I get that. And I’m not asking you to go to bed with me. Not yet. Not tonight. But stay here in the guest room. I’d feel better if you weren’t alone. I’ll make us breakfast in the morning and then I’ll take you home. And then I’ll give you time. In the morning we’ll set a date. Dinner. Dancing. Whatever pleases you. Then you can give me your answer, and depending on the answer, we’ll go from there.”

She swallowed visibly and he could see the indecision in her eyes. Her weighing her options and trying to absorb the events of the day.

“Stay,” he whispered, angling his head to kiss her again.

She emitted a sweet sigh as his tongue pushed in to taste her all over again. Kissing her was addictive. Now that he’d kissed her for the first time, he knew it would never be enough. He wanted to taste her everywhere. Her breasts. He wanted to get between her legs and savor every inch of her feminine flesh. And then he wanted to brand her. Possess her in every conceivable fashion there was to possess a woman. Until she had no doubt as to his ownership. No doubt that he was the last man who’d ever make love to her.

“Stay,” he said again, as he reluctantly ended the kiss and drew away.

She sucked in a breath and then exhaled it in a long wave, her shoulders slumping downward with the action.

“All right,” she conceded. “I’ll stay.”

SIX

WHEN Joss walked into Dash’s kitchen the next morning, he knew she hadn’t slept well, if at all. But then neither had he. How could he when he was imagining her in the next bedroom? So f**king close and yet a world away. Out of reach. He’d lain in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, alternately thanking and cursing fate.

He was so close. This close to having his heart’s desire, and he kept wondering if this was all some sick joke fate was playing on him. Dangling the proverbial carrot in front of his nose only to cruelly yank it away. What if Joss backed out? What if she’d acted on impulse and after careful consideration chose to change her mind?

He couldn’t handle it. It had been bad enough before when he’d known he had no chance with her. But now? Now that he’d kissed her, had tasted her, had held her in his arms? He couldn’t bear it if he lost her now. Before he even had her once.

Not that once would ever be enough. Not with her. Other women? Once had been all he’d ever wanted. He hadn’t wanted to form relationships even though not doing so was torture in itself. He saw Joss and Carson. Was tortured by what they had and by knowing he’d never have the same.

Most of the time he sucked it up and dealt. But the nights when he couldn’t, when he was lonely and aching for what could never be, he’d gone to The House. Sated his needs and then went back to his self-induced purgatory.

He hoped to f**k that was over. For good. He could only hope. If willing it made it happen, then she’d have already been in his bed. Tied to it so she’d never leave.

Desperate? That didn’t even cover it. Not by a long shot.

He had no pride when it came to Joss. And he didn’t give one damn.

He poured a cup of her favorite coffee and slid it along the bar as she sat down. She was wearing one of his T-shirts, a fact that made him absurdly happy, and a pair of pajama bottoms she’d had to cinch tight to keep from falling down her hips. Not that he would have minded . . .

“You didn’t sleep, baby,” he said in a gentle tone.

She flinched and closed her eyes, but not before he saw a surge of grief swamp them.

“Please don’t call me that,” she whispered.

“Of course. I didn’t think. I’m sorry,” he said softly.

It was what Carson had always called her.

“There are plenty of other endearments I’ll use for you, honey.”

She opened her eyes and a smile flirted with the corners of her mouth.

“Now, that’s better. Surely it wasn’t that bad of a night?”

But even as he said it, he knew it likely had been. It had been hell for him, and he wasn’t the one who’d been handed a huge shock. And on the anniversary of Carson’s death. He inwardly winced, but then timing wasn’t always his friend. He wasn’t going to not act just because it was the date of his best friend’s death. Fate—and Joss—had forced his hand.

“It was a lot to take in,” she admitted, bringing the cup to her lips.

She took a sip and then closed her eyes as pleasure washed away the lines of fatigue on her face.

“You spoil me,” she said, lowering the cup.

“No, but I intend to.”

“So last night wasn’t a dream then.”

He leaned over the counter so they were face-to-face, their gazes locked. “It was a dream. My dream. Now all we have to do is make it reality.”

“You make it sound so simple,” she murmured.

“It is. Or it isn’t. It’s what we choose to make it. Me? I’m a straightforward guy, but then you know that already. I’ve waited long enough, so you’ll have to excuse my impatience now that what I want is within reach.”

“How is this supposed to work, Dash? I spent all night thinking—wondering—what this all means. Before it was surreal. It was in the abstract. Not real and in my face. I fantasized. I wondered. I even conjured up various scenarios. But now that it’s here, right in front of me, I don’t know what to do. What to expect.”

“Why don’t we both eat. We’ll talk over breakfast and I’ll answer any question you want the answer to. But as I warned you last night, if you’re unprepared for the answer, it’s best you don’t ask.”

She nodded. “No, I want the truth. I want the reality. I need to know what this means. What me being with you means.”

He reached over to squeeze her hand. “Head over to the breakfast nook. I’ll grab our plates and meet you there.”

He watched as she shuffled the short distance, holding the mug of coffee between her palms as if trying to infuse her entire body with its warmth. He’d much rather wrap himself around her. He’d give her all the warmth she needed and so much more.

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